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Why not offer a smoke-free night?


Fri, Jul 28th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

"Just try it. You might find that you like it."

I really don't know how many times I've utilized that sage line of thinking when trying to encourage our daughter to give a healthy entre a try. Usually, the eatable item is a vegetable. I'm sure that my parents attempted to use this on me 40-some years ago.

It appears as if the La Crosse County Health Department is asking the bar owners in their fair city to do the same when it comes to initiating a "smokeless night." According to a front page story in the La Crosse Tribune, county health officials have asked bar owners to voluntarily set up a "smoke-free" night in their establishments.

Al Bliss, a health department educator, explained, "This could mean one night, or whatever the owner decides. We'd like to measure the success or failure of such an event. We'd also like to know if offering smoke-free nights encourages smokers to quit."

The health department is looking at barriers that can prevent young adults from quitting smoking in a project funded by a $100,000 grant from the American Legacy Foundation, a national public health foundation devoted to keeping young people from smoking.

According to official statistics, the smoking rate among 18- to 24-year-olds who aren't in college is 41 percent, which is one of the highest rates in Wisconsin and far above the 22 percent of all adults who smoke.

"The bars are another venue for us to reach young adults," Bliss added.

Unfortunately, the bar owners' initial reaction to the "smokeless night" proposal is much like my daughters' when encouraged to give a bright, green stem of broccoli a try. Dave Parisey, president of the La Crosse County Tavern League and owner of the Popcorn Tavern, said he would be opposed to smokeless nights. He figures 98 percent of his clientele smoke, so he wouldn't have any customers if he went smokeless for a night. "It's amazing how many people smoke and drink. I'm afraid bar owners wouldn't be interested. This whole smoking issue is a sour lemon for us," Parisey was quoted as saying.

But what would hurt if a couple of the bars tried this experiment for just one night? What if they decided to try it on their slowest night of the week, promote the heck out of it, and see what might happen? According to statistics, approximately 80 percent of the adult population in both Minnesota and Wisconsin is made up of non-smokers. So nearly 8 out of every 10 potential customers don't smoke. Why not offer a "smoke-free" night and see how many of the nearly 80 percent of their potential customer base decide to stop in for a cool one without having to leave smelling like a smoked sardine?

The bar owners who were interviewed reported that the vast majority of their customers are smokers. They indicated that they couldn't survive on the two to five percent of their customer base who are non-smokers. But what these business people didn't take into account is the fact that the vast majority of non-smokers don't frequent bars because of the smoke-filled environment, and not because they don't like to drink. And with the latest findings by the U.S. Surgeon General concerning second-hand smoke, non-smokers are apt to start spending even less time drinking in a bar, but will be enjoying their favorite beverage in a smoke-free environment on their deck or patio.

Doesn't it make sense to at least give this experiment a try? Why alienate 80 percent of our potential customer base for the 20 percent that smokes? Do the math - if just 50 percent of the non-smoking population begins to frequent smoke-free watering holes - that is twice as many customers as if 100 percent of the smoking population stopped in for a cool one on a regular basis.

Smoke-free bars have become a big hit in other areas. I feel the big reason is a business has 80 percent of the customer base to work with, instead of 20 percent. And recent surveys back up my premise. The La Crosse County Health Department and Western Technical College conducted focus groups among 18- to 24-year-olds last year. In the survey of 138 young adults, 50 percent said it would make no difference to them if bars went totally smoke-free. Twenty-eight percent said they would frequent smoke-free bars less, and 22 percent said they would frequent smoke-free bars more often.

I'd be willing to bet if they conducted the same survey with 30- to 50-year-olds, the results would lean even farther towards smoke-free bars. The vast majority of the people I know in this age group have told me the main reason they no longer go to bars is because they can't stand the smoke.

My advice to the bar owners considering a smoke-free night is: "Just try it. You might find that you like it," and... you just might increase your business.

Charlie Warner is the editor of the Houston County News in LaCrescent.

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