Two and a half years ago, one would not have expected to hear Dawna Schwiegerath, owner of Blondie Firehouse, speak kindly of Colorado’s indoor …
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Two and a half years ago, one would not have expected to hear
Dawna Schwiegerath, owner of Blondie Firehouse, speak kindly of
Colorado’s indoor smoking ban.
As late as 2006, while many bars and restaurants were preparing
for the law’s inevitability, Blondie’s was bucking the trend by
actively courting tobacco users. Signs on the walls of the
Englewood watering hole blew smoke at the anti-cigarette movement
by actively encouraging smokers to light up inside the bar.
Blondie’s apparent defiance of the anti-smoking Zeitgeist was
nothing more than a last chance at niche marketing in anticipation
of lost business, according to Schwiegerath, who calls herself a
“Smoking and drinking usually go hand in hand,” she said. “So I
just figured since everybody else was going the other way, I’d do
something different. I knew the smoking ban was coming.”
At the time, many bars and restaurants were complaining that the
proposed Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act would be a threat to their
very survival and that nonsmoking policies should be an individual
and market-based decision. Some became vocal opponents of the
legislation that forced Colorado smokers onto outdoor patios
starting July 1, 2006.
In the 2½ years since, Schwiegerath, a longtime veteran of the
bar business, has come to see the bright side of Blondie’s
Firehouse involuntarily extinguishing cigarettes.
“I don’t smell like a giant cigarette factory anymore when I go
home, and it helps everybody’s health regardless of whether they
like it or not,” she said. “My ceilings aren’t dirty and things
don’t need to be repainted. It’s all positive things.”
Schwiegerath, who still has some mixed feelings, speaks almost
timidly on the subject as customers mill around her establishment
underneath Bally’s Total Fitness at the Englewood Civic Center.
“They were furious,” she said of her smoking clientele’s initial
reaction to the ban. “There’s part of me that thinks it’s rude that
people can’t smoke in certain areas.”
A period of adjustment
For many bar owners in Colorado, taking cigarettes out of bars
made about as much sense as removing the beer, bar stools and
jukebox. Schwiegerath says she saw a 20 percent drop in business
during the first eight to nine months of the ban. As smokers have
grown accustomed to the new “normal,” however, Blondie’s has
recouped its lost business.
Most restaurants have successfully adapted to the ban, according
to Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association.
The trade group’s spokesman notes that 80 percent of Colorado
restaurants were already nonsmoking when the ban took effect.
“Initially, there were some adjustments that needed to be made,”
he said. “But for most restaurants, there was no change. For those
that still allowed smoking, there were some changes, such as
outdoor patios being built. Restaurants are in competition with
each other and with the supermarkets so we want to make the
experience as enjoyable as possible.”
Though Meersman and others in the industry concede that on
balance the ban has not hurt restaurants in the long term, there is
less consensus on whether the lure of a smoke-free environment has
encouraged nonsmokers to eat out more often.
Smoke Free Colorado, the umbrella coalition that backed the ban
in the Colorado legislature, points to increased overall sales in
the restaurant business during much of the last two years.
The coalition’s Jill Bednarek, director of secondhand smoke
initiatives at the Colorado Department of Public Health and
Environment, views the ban as a clear public-health policy success
“We have uniform compliance across the state and public approval
for smoke-free policies has increased,” she said. “We even have
believers in the business groups that originally had concerns. In
fact, in some areas, it really helped business.”
For example, Fort Collins saw a 5 percent increase in business
at restaurants and bars in 2004, the year following the institution
of that city’s smoking ban.
A statewide study has not yet been conducted and Meersman is not
so sure that nonsmokers have become more frequent restaurant
consumers as a result of the statewide ban. He points to the
economic recession as an example of how very little in the
restaurant business can be definitively explained by external
“It’s hard to quantify. If the smoking ban would have went into
effect Nov. 1, would we be saying, ‘Boy, people sure aren’t eating
out because of the smoking ban’? — when really it’s just the
Jose’s Mexican restaurant in downtown Littleton was one of the
80 percent of Colorado restaurants that had already gone nonsmoking
prior to July 1, 2006 — and it was reportedly the first eatery in
Littleton to ban smoking completely.
Longtime proprietor Jose Trujillo enacted his nonsmoking policy
in the early 1990s, in large part because of his daughter’s asthma.
The restaurateur said his decision to pull the ashtrays happened
almost on a whim, well before nonsmoking eateries became
“After a while, the walls would get yellowish,” Trujillo said of
the days when he allowed customers to light up. “I had all these
smoke eaters and air cleaners, but it just didn’t seem to do the
job. My daughter had a problem with breathing. And I just said,
‘that’s it, no more smoking. To hell with it.’”
Trujillo, a member of the Littleton City Council, estimates that
he temporarily lost about a half-dozen angry customers and upset a
few of his own employees over his trailblazing decision.
“If people had gone really negative, I probably would have just
shut the doors,” he said.
Jose’s turned out to be an inadvertent trend setter in the local
industry’s move to snuff out public smoking. Within a few years,
other restaurants in the area had also asked smokers to step
In 1996, Boulder passed Colorado’s first indoor smoking ban,
which in a controversial move also included bars in its
prohibition. Fort Collins and Pueblo soon followed suit with
A decade later, Colorado became the 13th state in the nation to
pass a sweeping statewide ban on smoking in restaurants, bars,
workplaces and public buildings. A year ago, the ban’s exemption
for gambling casinos expired.
As Colorado has taken various efforts over the years to limit
where people can smoke, Colorado’s collective health has improved
as a result, according to the ban’s proponents.
A recent study approved by the Centers for Disease Control
showed the rate of heart-attack hospitalizations in Pueblo dropped
41 percent in the three years since that city enacted its ban on
workplace smoking. According to the study’s authors, the research
suggests that secondhand smoke may be an under-recognized cause of
A study in Greeley found that city’s ban was followed by a 30
percent reduction in smoking-related illnesses.
Others point to anecdotal evidence of the smoking ban’s
Trujillo says his asthmatic daughter, who once had difficulty
breathing in his restaurant, now comfortably works at Jose’s almost
20 years after he instituted a no-smoking policy.
Even many of Blondie’s tobacco-using customers seem to be
smoking less since the ban took effect, according to Schwiegerath,
especially during the winter months when going outside may be less
Bednarek says she did not expect to see Colorado — smokers and
businesses alike — adapting so well to the smoking ban.
“I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the whole state really
seemed to embrace it,” the state health official said. “I hear
people say, I can take my kids to a bowling alley now. I hear
people say they go to other states and walk in a restaurant, and
it’s like, oh yeah, Colorado was way ahead of its time.”
Even a bar owner like Schwiegerath, a mother of two, has learned
to console her smoking patrons with even-handed consolation on the
“I’ve been in both places and I listen a lot. That’s what you do
as a bartender,” she said. “But ultimately, when you bring the
health of innocent people into it, you don’t want your children to
be around that stuff.”
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