Wednesday, September 14, 2005

COLUMN -- Putting a face on impact of smoking bans

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:42 AM |  

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The back door of Stasiu's Bar leads to the patio. "Patio" is a stretch. It's a wooden stoop maybe 5 feet deep and 7 feet across. On a warm September night, Stasiu's Happy Hour patrons rotate out to the patio to smoke. Inside, two women shoot pool. Another dozen or so people sit at the bar. Jerry Ayers ambles through the back door like he hasn't a care in the world.

Jerry is a bartender at the Northeast Minneapolis bar. A blue-collar bar in a working class neighborhood, Stasiu's is that place where everybody knows your name. Where your drink is on the bar before you ask for it. It's also where Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis dictate that patrons can smoke only on the patio.

Jerry is a right jolly guy. A younger, sans white beard, St. Nick — rosy cheeks, merry dimples and a broad face, and he has a bit of girth that shakes when he laughs. And he laughs often. Not easy for a guy watching "the best job I've ever had" yanked away.

Making his way along the bar, Jerry stops frequently to lay a hand on a shoulder, share a laugh, swap a story. To the only stranger in the bar he offers a quick introduction. "I just want to say 'hi' to a few friends," he tells me, meaning everybody else in Stasiu's, including the middle-aged woman reading a paperback novel in the pull-tab booth.

The woman has time to read. For April, May and June, charitable gambling receipts in smoke-free Hennepin County are down more than $10 million year-to-year, according to the Minnesota Gambling Control Board. After prizes, expenses and taxes, that's close to $500,000 that will not be funneled to local youth and civic organizations, veterans and senior citizens.

"Pretty quiet," I note to Greg Kubik, the bartender, cook, server — the only employee on duty. Staff has been laid off and hours cut since the smoking ban. Greg has worked at Stasiu's since the first keg was tapped 30 years ago.

"Wasn't always like this," he said. "Even on weekdays about half the tables were full. Both pool tables were usually busy." He gestures over the relatively empty room. "This is about it now."

Smoking ban proponents point to aggregate industry numbers showing that hospitality taxes have not decreased after smoking bans were enacted. As long as government gets theirs, all is right with the world. That Stasiu's is virtually empty, that more than 20 such taverns have closed since the smoking ban, is inconsequential to the powerful, the influential and the arrogant.

Stasiu's is just one inconsequential working class bar; Jerry, Greg and Stasiu's patrons just inconsequential working class stiffs. Says the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco, 74 percent of Minnesotans favor smoking bans. Is that a surprise? When at no cost a majority can impose its whim on a despised minority, why not? Individual property rights and freedom of choice are just inconsequential rhetoric in the collective vision of a smoke-free Minnesota.

"On a good weekend night before the ban a bartender could make $250 in tips," Jerry said. "Now, it's closer to $50. I used to save all my change in a big jar for vacation money. I don't do that any more."

Greg, whose monthly income is down $500 to $600, canceled his vacation this year. His house is on the market. Jerry is selling baseball memorabilia collected by his father over decades and augmented by Jerry's second job, working in the Twins Pro Shop.

"We had planned to save it (an extensive collection) for my daughter's education," Jerry said. "I called my dad and told him times were tough. 'Well, it was for a rainy day,' Dad told me. 'And it's raining.' " Selling under duress, Jerry is getting about 30 cents on the dollar.

Ironically, $1.5 million in tobacco money garnered on taxpayers' behalf is used by MPAAT for "political action" that has taxpayer Jerry raiding his loose change and selling his memorabilia, taxpayer Greg selling his home, and both men fearing for their jobs. No matter. Jerry and Greg don't fit the plan.

"People think that people that hang around in neighborhood bars are all alcoholics," Jerry said. "That's not true. Stasiu's is where people meet their friends. Where they socialize. It's part of the neighborhood."

"I'm afraid it won't be here long," Greg said.

"So what," say the powerful, the influential and the arrogant.

Category: Column,