A year after Montgomery County banned smoking in restaurants, restaurant owners and anti-smoking advocates remain sharply divided over the impact the ban has had on the local restaurant industry. The debate is moot at the county level but still has implications in Annapolis, where a proposal for a statewide smoking ban is likely to be reintroduced in January.
Supporters of a statewide ban have cited data in Montgomery County that indicate the ban has not hurt the restaurant industry.
In June, Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) heralded figures from the state comptroller's office showing that county restaurant revenue had increased 7 percent during the first six months of the ban, which took effect last Oct. 9.
The latest figures released by the comptroller's office indicate that county restaurant revenue has since flattened out. During fiscal year 2004, which ended June 30, the state received $28 million in tax revenue from Montgomery County restaurants and night clubs, up 0.4 percent compared with fiscal year 2003.
The information "indicates clearly that the smoke-free restaurant law is not harming the restaurant industry. The fact is people continue to go out to eat and drink. Few smokers will change where they will go because they're accustomed to going places where there is no smoking," Andrews said.
He added: "I will continue to get the word out in Montgomery County. It should give comfort to lawmakers that you can protect the public health and the restaurant community will still thrive."
The restaurant industry disputed Andrews's conclusions. The figures don't differentiate between restaurants that allowed smoking before the ban, such as taverns, and those that did not, such as McDonald's, said Melvin Thompson, vice president for government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
More recent statistics indicate that during the past 12 months, county restaurant alcohol sales -- including those in Rockville and Gaithersburg -- were relatively flat, increasing by 1.3 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the Department of Liquor Control. Keg sales, which are more likely to reflect sales at establishments that previously allowed smoking, were down 1.76 percent during the 12 months after the ban.
In July, the restaurant association examined food and alcohol sales data from Department of Liquor Control reports from October 2003 through March. They excluded businesses in Rockville and Gaithersburg because smoking was permitted in those municipalities during much of the six-month period. Rockville's smoking ban took effect Feb. 1. Gaithersburg's smoking ban took effect in March.
The restaurant association also surveyed 25 restaurants that had permitted smoking before the ban. Seventy-one percent of respondents said they have had to lay off employees or cut employee hours as a result. And in at least five cases, the smoking ban has contributed to the closure of a restaurant, Thompson said.
The restaurant association found that the volume of restaurant alcohol sales at those restaurants was down 16 percent, compared with the same six-month period a year earlier.
Andrews said restaurants close for many reasons. "One should be cautious of drawing cause and effect between the ban and closing of an individual restaurant," he said. "They can close because of a change in competition, chefs, public taste."
But Thomas Z. Zambetis, owner of the Cactus Grill in Aspen Hill, cited the ban as "the single reason" his restaurant closed in January. "It wasn't cleanliness or service or the food," he said, adding that his sales declined 35 percent after the ban took effect.
"The first Monday night football after the ban, the difference in sales from the previous week was 20 percent less," recalled Selby Scaggs, owner of the Anchor Inn in Wheaton. He called the ban "a contributing factor" in his decision to close the restaurant in August.
Other critics of the ban said county leaders didn't take into consideration the investment several restaurateurs had made to improve air quality by upgrading their ventilation systems and creating enclosed bar areas.
About a year before the ban, Scaggs said, he invested about $300,000 into a new ventilation system for the bar portion of his restaurant. Claude Andersen, corporate operations manager for Clyde's Restaurant Group, said his company spent close to $500,000 upgrading ventilation at its two Montgomery County locations.
"Restaurateurs spent hundreds of thousands of dollars . . . only to have that investment stranded," said Richard Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
Andrews said the council never encouraged business owners to make such investments. "The County Council has been on record for five years on this issue. . . . People should've known," he said. "The science is clear that ventilation systems can't adequately clear the air of the toxins in secondhand smoke. . . . We want our restaurants to succeed but it can't be at expense of workers' and patrons' health."
Andersen said the ban has ended any thoughts of Clyde's expanding in the county. "We're not going to open another one," he said. "The bars are pretty integral part of business and the way we do business. When they're not very busy, it makes it look like an empty place."