Up in smoke

Will Lawrence's music scene be extinguished by smoking ban?


Patrick Giroux/Journal-World Illustration

Live music and cigarette smoking share a long history together.

Picture a weathered jazz musician with puffs of smoke hovering over his piano.

Or a rock guitarist keeping a lit Marlboro in his headstock that he drags on between tunes.

Or a darkened stadium crowd flicking cigarette lighters as a salute to the band.

However, the Lawrence City Commission decided to bust up the happy couple this week by voting to approve a health ordinance that would ban smoking in "all enclosed public places." While a handful of people are griping about how the ruling will affect restaurants and bowling alleys, there is mounting concern over the impact it could have on Lawrence's vaunted music scene.

"As many studies as they want to give us, I find it hard to believe that it could NOT hurt nightlife," says local music promoter Jacki Becker, co-owner of Eleven Productions. "How could it not hurt the business of bars and restaurants? It absolutely has to."

But Commissioner Boog Highberger -- who originally proposed a voter referendum then reconsidered it two weeks later -- believes the potential impact is being overstated.

"I don't see us losing shows to either Topeka or Kansas City because of the smoking ban," he says. "I really don't see it having an impact on music venues. It's possible to see some smaller shows going to house parties instead. But I don't think it's going to be significant."

As it stands now, the ban will be among the harshest in the nation, falling in line with cities such as Los Angeles and New York. Unlike smaller towns (such as Salina or Ames, Iowa) that allow smoking at restaurants and bars after a certain time in the evening, the law would be no more lenient toward indoor businesses than if the establishments were located within a commercial airplane.

"I could make a blanket statement that anybody who doesn't have an outside smoking area is going to get hurt," says Nick Carroll, owner of The Replay Lounge and The Jackpot Saloon.

"I'm not certain if it's enough to close (a business), but there's a chance that the venues will book less music."

Carroll recently sent a letter to the City Commission that detailed three key reasons for opposing the ban. In addition to "loss of jobs due to closures to lost sales" and "the potential loss in liquor tax," Carroll focused on the likelihood of "damaging the music and artistic culture."

"Lawrence has such a great tradition," Carroll says. "We get shows in this town that are only seen in major population areas. It's a little oasis of live music."

Carroll believes concert-goers will become tired of having to constantly slip outside in order to smoke -- especially given the harsh climate during the winter months -- and crowds might slowly diminish. Promoters will presumably be the first to become gun-shy when booking live acts.

He says, "If you get burned a couple times and stop taking those risks, then the scene just turns into a regular college scene instead of Lawrence."

Gasping for air
Unless there is a public referendum, the ban is slated to go into effect July 1. Highberger says he's willing to entertain the idea of extending that a couple of months in order to give owners time for the approval and construction of decks and patios.

Unfortunately, not every place that features live music is capable of making these renovations.

"The most severe thing is a lot of these venues can't have patios," says Carroll. "That's because, especially downtown, the city says you have to have a certain amount of food sales to qualify for a patio."

Ironically, Carroll's Replay Lounge is the only music-oriented locale to currently feature an outdoor patio.

"I was looking at the broader picture," Carroll says of why he still opposes the ban. "And also we have The Jackpot Saloon. Overall, Replay can't do it alone."

Those businesses without a patio will be forced to contend with the reality of their patrons going in and out for smoke breaks. This will likely bring up a whole new set of challenges.

"Most of these venues work really hard to maintain a good store front and keep the smoking people inside, then you clean up your cigarette butts inside," Becker says. "Now they're going to be outside the building. I'm sure somebody who lives downtown is going to be irritated by that and they'll pass some law that makes trash illegal on the street or something. I can't wait to see what they'll do next."

Becker points out that it would make preventing new ways of scamming at sellout shows unfeasible. Previously, patrons were often not allowed to leave the venue and come back for fear of tickets being passed to friends for them to sneak in.

"It's going to become a huge pain," says Andy Morton, a longtime area musician and bar employee. "It will make things more difficult for those employees at those bars to keep track of people.

"I'd be more in support of a patchouli ban, because that really does affect all of us."


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Bottleneck patron Nick Spacek, of Lawrence, smokes at the venue Tuesday night.

You're under arrest
While the arguments about where and why the ban will go into effect are public knowledge, there is still a lot of gray area in terms of enforcing it. Say a patron at The Bottleneck lights up a cigarette -- then what happens?

"There are various city employees that are responsible for enforcement, including fire department officials," Highberger explains. "I guess from that point, it's likely to be up to the bar owner. Under the ordinance, the way it's proposed now, the operator is potentially liable for a fine for allowing violations of the ordinance."

But because the action would be considered a misdemeanor, the offender would also be culpable.

"Either one or both can get fined," he clarifies.

This would obviously put added pressure on the establishment to patrol its own customers since it wouldn't be just the individual who could be fined.

"As far as enforcement goes, are we going to knock heads for cigarettes or are we going to fight the battle of keeping the alcohol inside?" says Doug Redding, an employee at Liberty Hall. Currently, the multipurpose venue doesn't allow any smoking when screening a movie (courtesy of the fire code) but lets performing artists determine if they want a show to be non-smoking.

"Trying to police an entire hall, you can only do so much," he says.

There are other factors to consider.

A potential scenario might involve a national touring band whose members simply decide to keep on smoking while playing their show. (Who wants to tell the guys in Cephalic Carnage to snuff out their butts?) This puts the venue's staff in a difficult position in terms of diplomacy.

"What's not to say that a cop won't come up and arrest some band guy onstage for smoking? You never know," Becker says.

"It's so very high school to me. It's like, 'Don't wear that Ozzy Osbourne shirt. Don't wear the anti-George Bush T-shirt. Don't wear a beer slogan.' They're slapping your hands to do something that's completely legal."

Hey, my clothes don't smell like smoke
Aside from the medical arguments regarding harm from secondhand smoke, could the ban make the concert-going experience better in other ways for audiences?

"For some people, yes," says Highberger. "Except for those people who are committed smokers, I think it will clearly improve the situation."

"You'd be able to see better," Carroll admits. "There'd be a certain amount of people that would go to shows that didn't because they don't go to places that are smoky. But it seems like there are a lot of smokers that support the venues."

However, Becker believes the question is immaterial.

"I don't think that's the issue," she says. "Now they're going to refrain from smoking to enjoy a concert. Then they'll have to potentially miss one of their favorite songs to go outside so they can do something completely legal. Then they'll have to go through the same security process to get back into the building. It seems very time-consuming and not completely thought out."


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