OTTUMWA — It's been five years this week since Iowa's Smoke-free Air Act went into effect. Some Iowans were thrilled, others annoyed. Business owners wondered how the move would impact sales.
Iowa bars, restaurants and clubs could no longer allow smoking indoors. Managers were ordered to remove ash trays (or anything that "could be used as an ash tray"), post "no smoking" signs with a complaint hotline number displayed and enforce the policy through an escalating series of measures culminating in calling police on a smoker.
A few refused to comply.
"My stance was [that] I refused to send a World War II veteran out to an icy parking lot to smoke a cigarette," said Denny Whitson of Ottumwa. "My stand on it got me thrown out of the VFW commander spot."
Courtside Bar and Grill decided to go smoke free before the law took effect. So did Second Street Cafe. Recovery Room, a bar and grill, opened with the idea of being smoke free. That's fine, said Whitson. Even as a smoker, he'd visit a smoke-free business. A business owner should have a right to decide what their policies are. They don't need the government making decisions for them, he said.
Tim Schwartz, co-owner of the Hotel Ottumwa, had the rare chance to simultaneously make both decisions before the law was enforced. He and his business partners decided they would prohibit smoking in the hotel restaurant. In the bar down the hall, smoking continued.
"In my case, we needed to have the law to take smoking out of the Tom Tom Tap (bar)," Schwartz said.
When the owner of Courtside prohibited smoking at his bar, Schwartz said he actually saw Tom Tom numbers go up as new patrons told him they wanted to have a smoke with their drink.
"But I don't know ... did we we lose non-smokers to Courtside, too? I think maybe it evened out. They made a bold decision," he said.
Revenue didn't change much in the hotel bar, he said.
"Now I couldn't imagine having smoking in here," Schwartz said. "To me, it's been a positive thing."
Once the law went into effect, revenue still didn't seem to change at the Tom Tom — or perhaps, he felt, it went up a bit as their specific clientele was more willing to come out for a drink and a snack without the smoky environment. Besides, Schwartz said, once the law went into effect, it "leveled the playing field" so all bars were smoke free.
Not all, said Whitson.
Once the ban went into place, he saw revenue at the VFW club drop by one-third. He said the message he got from lawmakers was that he should do a better job managing the club's business. Then those lawmakers passed an exception for the state's own casinos because they feared prohibiting smoking could cause revenue to drop by about a third, Whitson said. So patrons could (and still can) smoke in casinos.
That fact didn't help the Ottumwa VFW or other entities refusing to comply.
The state threatened then levied fines. The state liquor board got involved, threatening to pull valuable liquor licenses. In some cases, they did just that.
"Ours was suspended for 30 days," said Whitson.
His arguments mirror those from other managers: Citizens can decide to smoke or not smoke, businesses can dictate their own policies, veterans in private clubs have earned the right to have a beer and a cigarette.
And if the state thinks smoking is so bad it must be banned, why isn't it banned from the places making them money?
Exactly, said state Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, known for frequently citing Iowa's constitution.
"It's just one sentence, and it says there's no special class of citizens in Iowa. That means we're not allowed to give special rights to one group, or to discriminate against another group," he told the Courier Wednesday.
Do businesses supporting state revenue via gambling licenses count as "special class" in Iowa?
"In my opinion, yes, they do. I've submitted amendments to bills in an effort to fix that. Be consistent. Either eliminate smoking exemptions for casinos [so there is] no smoking, or allow smoking in all facilities that [allow] only adults," Chelgren said.
Whitson said he could accept that.
"Right is right and wrong is wrong."
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