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Smoking Ban: Seven Years Later, Dramatic Changes in Fairfield County Bars

Publication Date: 10/23/2010
  • Author:Marisa Torrieri
  • Publication:westport.patch.com

After early resistance, smoke-free bars and restaurants are embraced by patrons and workers alike.

The air is smoke-free, as it's been in the seven years this month since the state's smoking ban took effect in restaurants (bars and taverns followed in April 2004). But the barren streets of the adorable stretch still begs the question: Where are the smokers?

As it turns out, a lot has changed since the law took effect seven years ago, restauranteurs in New Canaan and other Fairfield County towns tell Patch. For starters, the number of disgruntled patrons who puff has declined -- a sharp contrast from when the law took hold, according to Gates co-owner Billy Auer.

"There were a lot of angry people who didn't think it was fair to them and their rights," he said.

According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the number of cigarette smokers in the state peaked in 1999 at 22.8 percent. In 2009, the same year that the state cigarette tax was raised from $2 to $3, that number fell to 15.4 percent.

Department spokesman Bill Gerrish said he speculates that a number of factors — such as a weakened economy compounded by cigarette tax and the ban of smoking in bars and restaurants — may have prompted more people to kick their cigarette habits.

Whatever the reason for the decline, Fairfield County bar and restaurant owners said the law has had a mostly positive impact on their bottom lines, as both patrons and workers are happier not breathe in smoky air.

Still, those who were in the food business since before the turn of the century say it wasn't easy.

Auer, a former smoker who quit 15 years ago, said the ban on cigarette air has had immeasurable health benefits.

"I have asthma and I would wheeze more," Auer said. "And now my breathing is considerably better. Not having to deal with ashtrays or the smell of smoke on everything was a pleasant change."

Nicole Griffin, executive director for the Connecticut Restaurant Association in Hartford, told Patch the smoking ban was a big issue seven years ago. Today, bigger issues like the economy and sick pay for full-time employees have eclipsed it.

"The smoking ban is not an issue at all for restaurants," said Griffin, whose organization has 600 members. "When it first passed, restauranteurs were really nervous that once the ban was put into effect people wouldn't come out to eat and drink, and that's not what happened. Seven years later, customers are really happy to go out to bars and to eat and drink and not be in an atmosphere of smoke."