A ballot initiative that would strip Arizona restaurants and bars of their right to allow smoking has found some unlikely allies: the state’s restaurant association and a small but vocal group of bar owners.
Duke’s Sports Bar & Grill owner Al McCarthy said smoking is permitted in his Scottsdale bar because about 20 percent of his patrons smoke — a customer base he can’t afford to lose.
Still, McCarthy said he supports Proposition 201 because he’s concerned about the health of his staff, including a daughter who continued to work there while she was pregnant.
“I want my employees to work in a smoke-free environment,” McCarthy said. “This industry should be no different from a newspaper or any office place.”
McCarthy is in the minority among bar owners. The Arizona Licensed Beverage Association, of which Duke is a member, is the second-largest contributor to competing measure, Proposition 206, after tobacco giant RJ Reynolds, which has given nearly $3 million to the campaign.
Prop. 206 would allow smoking in bars and some enclosed restaurant areas where minors are not permitted, which supporters say would protect nonsmokers and children while giving adults the right to choose.
Campaign spokeswoman Camilla Strongin said that right should extend to bar employees, too.
“It’s clearly an adult choice to go and apply for a job in a smoking environment,” Strongin said. “If Prop. 201 folks let the market decide, there’s going to be plenty of bars that don’t allow smoking.”
But McCarty said the best way to protect bar owners and their employees is to prohibit smoking statewide.
“I just want a level playing field for everybody,” he said.
The trade organization representing Arizona restaurants and hotels also has endorsed Prop. 201, but not for health reasons.
Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association’s president and CEO, Steve Chukri, said his group is concerned Prop. 206 would favor restaurateurs who can afford to build expensive bar additions — and create the potential for costly liquor-licensing problems.
Under Prop. 206, a restaurant would only allow smoking in an enclosed “accessory bar,” away from nonsmoking areas and whose primary focus must be alcohol sales, Chukri said. Minors would not be allowed in an accessory bar, which would have to be separated from the restaurant by a wall and have an independent ventilation system.
Building an accessory bar isn’t cheap, he said, making it difficult for smaller restaurants to offer a smoking area.
“You’ve got to go and make these investments, and some people may not be able to, but you almost have to in order to compete,” Chukri said.
Even so, he acknowledged that Prop. 201's outright smoking ban would be bad for restaurants that already have invested in building an accessory bar to comply with local smoking ordinances such as those in Mesa and Chandler.
“In some cases, it’s going to hurt them, absolutely,” he said.
Some association members also fear that the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control could one day decide to require a more expensive license for accessory bars, Chukri said, even though that’s not the case today.
“If 206 should pass, that could be a stumbling block in some way,” he said. “Where does that put you in the eyes of the department of liquor?”
Restaurants that serve alcohol must hold a Series 12 liquor license, which requires at least 40 percent of the establishment’s gross sales to come from food. Department spokesman Sgt. Wes Kuhl said a Series 12 license costs about $2,000.
Bars that don’t sell enough food to qualify as a restaurant must purchase a Series 6 license, which can cost $90,000 or more, Kuhl said.
Although the Department of Liquor has sold a few Series 6 licenses in the past year — for $90,178 each — new licenses rarely are issued and usually must be purchased from an existing license holder.
“Those are bought and sold on the open market, so it’s up to the buyer and seller to agree on a price,” Kuhl said.
Chukri said the threat of having to pay that fee also influenced the restaurant association to support doing away with indoor smoking, although it still supports smoking on outdoor patios.
Kuhl said he isn’t familiar enough with the details of Prop. 206 to say whether it could pose a licensing problem. But JoAnne Harding, manager at Old Chicago, 1656 S. Alma School Road in Mesa, said the restaurant already has an enclosed smoking bar and hasn’t had any issues with its Series 12 liquor license.
Strongin said she hasn’t heard any concerns about liquor licensing under Prop. 206 and that nothing short of criminalizing tobacco use will completely eliminate the possibility of exposure to secondhand smoke.
She added that the 2-centsper-pack cigarette tax proposed by Prop. 201 to enforce the smoking ban would be a waste of money because violations are almost nonexistent in cities that already prohibit smoking in bars.
“In our opinion, it certainly does not require that type of tax,” Strongin said.
If voters approve both propositions, the one with the most votes will take effect.