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An exotic dancer lights up outside Harley's between sets. Bar owners say the smoking ban has hurt business. - NNSL file photo

Up in smoke

The first of a two part series, Yellowknifer examines the economic impact of a city-wide ban on smoking in public places. Next issue, Yellowknifer looks at the effect the year-old bylaw has had on public health.

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 03/04) - A year after the City of Yellowknife passed a hotly contested bylaw banning smoking in public places, bar owners say the measure has crippled their businesses.

"City Hall said customers would come back, but that hasn't happened," said Lorne Power, manager of the Royal Canadian Legion.

"Things will never be back to normal."

Power was one of several bar owners and managers who told Yellowknifer their revenues have dropped by 30 to 85 per cent since the bylaw came into effect Oct. 1, 2003.

In a town where roughly 25 per cent of adults are smokers, some in the hospitality industry say their businesses may never recover.

"You will eventually see bankruptcies," said Angie Fardella, manager of the Gold Range bar.

Revenues at the Range have dropped nearly 30 per cent in the last year, Fardella estimated, forcing management to slash the number of full- and part-time workers to seven from about 20 in 2003.

But Coun. Kevin O'Reilly, who was a vocal advocate of the smoking ban, said a decrease in the number of mid-afternoon bar goers could reduce the social problems that go hand-in-hand with drinking.

"If we have reduced alcohol consumption, perhaps that is not a bad thing," he said.

Statistics provided by the NWT Liquor Commission show a decrease in alcohol consumption in Yellowknife, but the drop does not appear as precipitous as many bar owners predicted last year, when the ban first came into force.

Sales to licensed establishments in the city dropped 17 per cent in the year after the smoking ban was implemented, to $4.8 million from $5.7 million in 2002-2003.

While bar owners continue to struggle with the new bylaw -- and a similar smoking ban introduced by the territorial government in May -- the Legion has taken an especially hard hit, Power said.

The Legion's net income -- based mostly on revenues from bingos and the sale of Nevada tickets -- has fallen 86 per cent in the last year and the organization was forced to cut charitable donations by $90,000, Power said.

"Membership is up, but people aren't smoking and gambling," said Power. "And as a result, less money is going to community groups."

Power said the Legion could be bankrupt in seven months.

"But that's not to say the Legion will be gone," said Power. "We'll just have to find other ways to make money."

Penny McHugh believes it is possible to make money in the industry.

Earlier this year, McHugh bought a sports bar in the Frame Lake area, completely renovated the interior and re-christened it Hot Shots.

Business has been steady since the bar's doors opened in early October, in part because Hot Shots offers more than just a place to sit and drink alcohol, she said. The pub holds special events like meat raffles.

"It's important to have variety," she said.

Power concedes the smoking ban has forced bars to become more innovative, which has resulted in more options for consumers.

The Legion touched off a reality-television-meets-Yellowknife craze earlier this year with the launch of the North of 60 Idol. The Elks lodge followed up with its own version of Fear Factor. "You need to be creative to keep your doors open," said Power.

Despite the dire predictions of bar owners, business in other jurisdictions have rebounded from similar no-smoking bylaws, said Dr. Andre Corriveau, chief medical health officer of the NWT.

"It takes an adjustment over time, but (patrons) eventually come back," he said.

According to the Government of Canada, studies in Victoria and Ottawa showed the hospitality industry experienced short-term losses after the implementation of smoking bans, but businesses eventually recovered.

In Ottawa's case, the government reported there were 80 more bars and restaurants open a year after the ban came into place.