Corey Pierce

When I moved to Portland from Seattle last year—just days after Washington State had passed its strictest-in-the-nation smoking ban—I was eager to see a smoking ban pass in Oregon, too.

Though I wouldn't clamor for a ban that includes Washington's restrictive 25-foot provision (which effectively killed smoking on Seattle bars' outdoor patios, makes it tough to find a legal spot to smoke, and gives the city one more tool to crack down on bars they don't like), the idea of a ban was appealing. I'd like to be able to go out for a drink and not come home smelling like an ashtray. And as an occasional smoker—most likely to light up when I've got a drink in front of me—a ban would help me curb my own unhealthy habit.

But it seemed that whenever I'd broach the topic—with smokers and non-smokers alike—I'd get a stock reply: Portland is different. The market here is taking care of non-smokers' going-out needs, as more and more bars go smoke-free voluntarily. Non-smokers are the majority, after all, and savvy businesses are catering to their customers and employees' desire for smoke-free air. (The logical conclusion: It's only a matter of time before smoking in a Portland bar is a relic found only in the diviest of dive bars.)

After a year of going out in this town, I could see their point. It's rare I find myself in a smoky bar in Portland, whereas smoke-stained walls were the norm in Seattle.

"Portland was actually like that about six years ago—it was really hard to find a non-smoking bar," says Kyle Ritter of BarFly Magazine, an encyclopedic magazine and website devoted to Portland drinkeries. Alongside our city's greatest dives, BarFly includes a section for non-smoking bars, under a mini rant that says, "Oregon does not need nanny state laws when it comes to smoke-free bars. Many bars are opting to go non-smoking, which is a blessing for both smokers and non-smokers."

Things have changed, says Ritter—a smoker with a non-smoking girlfriend who prefers to patronize non-smoking establishments. "The market is deciding. This is something I'm very supportive of, rather than legislating what people do. It's already doing it naturally, going though a Darwinian business process. It's moving that direction without legislation."

NO SMOKING HERE... AND HERE... AND HERE

We did a reality check on the theory that non-smoking bars are proliferating in Portland. The Mercury called nearly 300 Portland bars across the city to inquire about their smoking policies.

While you can still smoke in a majority of bars in town, their ranks are steadily decreasing. We found that many bars, like Madison's in SE Portland, have gone non-smoking recently (so recently, they aren't on BarFly's non-smoking list, or on the American Lung Association of Oregon's smoke-free roster). Others told us they were snuffing out smoking in the next few months.

Only 44 percent of the bars surveyed allowed carte blanche smoking throughout the establishment. Another 22 percent ban smoking entirely, while the remaining 34 percent offer a mixed solution to try and please everyone—like Holocene on SE Morrison, which has a small enclosed smoking room, or Mash Tun on NE Alberta, which only allows smoking after 9 pm.

Smoking policies varied by district—Northwest Portland, for example, is the least smoky. Three-quarters of bars offer a provision for non-smokers, and 30 percent are entirely non-smoking. Southeast Portland is apparently the city's smokers' haven, with only 19 of the 111 bars we called being entirely non-smoking. Another 32 allowed some smoking, but 55 percent of SE Portland bars are smoke-friendly.

Admittedly, some bars' attempts to accommodate non-smokers aren't likely to placate those who like the truly smoke-free environment a ban would provide. Dino's, in SE Portland, for example, offers a non-smoking area, but it's only 3 feet wide. The Tugboat Brewery, downtown, allows smoking throughout the place, but they claim to have such an efficient ventilation system that "you hardly notice it." (We didn't pop in to test that claim—but we're skeptical.) And spots that allow smoking later at night can still be stinky during non-smoking hours.

But more and more bars are making the switch to smoke-free, as they realize that the majority of people are non-smokers (and plenty of smokers don't like hanging out in thick smoke, either). And now? Non-smoking bars are in demand.

"On BarFly [the website], 'non-smoking area' is our most searched listing," Ritter says. "From Google and other search engines we get a lot of people looking for those types of bars."

Boxxes, a gay video bar on SW Stark, went non-smoking recently. Business took a hit—the rest of downtown's gay bars are smoke-friendly, and smoking rates in the gay community are higher than average—but according to the manager, they're sticking with the new policy. (The policy earned the bar a rave on citysearch.com in early September: "Non-smoking was a huge bonus.")

Marc Byrne, the non-smoking owner of XV, on SW 2nd, debated the idea of going non-smoking for over a year—he was worried he'd lose business, but he and his employees didn't like breathing the toxic fumes every night. He pointed out that a nearby bar owner doesn't smoke, but contracted emphysema nonetheless—thanks likely to the secondhand smoke at his establishment.

Byrne even solicited advice from the readers of barflymag.com. Most folks who commented urged him to move smokers outside, saying things like "Smoking outside is cool, smokers have come to expect it and non-smokers won't have to suck on the byproduct of a cancer stick."

In May, Byrne banned smoking on the weekends after 9 pm (an unusual setup—most places that ban smoking part-time ban it during the day, and set out the ashtrays late at night).

Since then, he's received "more positive comments than not, and the employees really appreciate it. Our ventilation is not the best."

"I still wrestle with going 100 percent non-smoking, or just let people smoke in the back room, during the week. I like the bike messengers, and a number of them smoke," Byrne says. He'd prefer if Oregon would ban smoking, so he wouldn't have to wrestle with the decision.

"There should be a universal ban. If California, New York, and Ireland can do it, we can. If there is a ban for all, no one needs to worry about an uneven playing field."

SELF-REGULATION: ALWAYS BETTER THAN GOVERNMENT REGULATION

To be sure, a statewide ban would make it much easier for bar owners who are on the fence, as Byrne is, to make the change. Plenty of bar owners claim they'd like to ban smoking, but fear it would hurt business if they're one of the few doing it.

But as more and more bars go non-smoking—or never allowed smoking, such as many of Portland's newest nightspots, like Vendetta, Doug Fir, and the Bettie Ford Lounge—that argument is losing steam. It may have been hard for the first bar in the neighborhood to switch to banning smoking, but in downtown Portland—XV's neighborhood—two-thirds of the 61 bars we talked to either ban smoking entirely, or ban it part of the time. Regulating if or when people can smoke in your bar is not a novelty or a weird concept anymore—it's the norm.

Plus as more Portland bars voluntarily toss the ashtrays, the number of smoke-free jobs will increase—and the argument that workers are forced to take jobs in smoky bars will start to lose credibility. With Portland inching closer to a smoke-free majority on its own, workers will eventually have a legitimate choice of working in a smoky or smoke-free environment.

And the trend toward bars going smoke-free could be helped along, without a ban. Perhaps a bottom-up approach could increase the number of smoke-free bars—volunteers could sit down with bar owners to give them info on how a smoke-free policy would be good for business. There would be less resistance than to a top-down, legislated, one-law-fits-all approach (and it would certainly fit with Portland's individualistic personality). Sure, there would be holdouts—places where the owners and bartenders, like their patrons, are all die-hard smokers. Maybe that's okay. Turning the majority of bars smoke-free would still be a victory, even if some still allowed smoking.

WHERE YOUR MONEY GOES

Regardless of whether bars go smoke-free voluntarily, the issue of a legislated smoking ban is sure to surface during next year's legislative session.

It was a huge issue in the last session: In 2005, anti-smoking groups lobbied to expand Oregon's Indoor Clean Air act to include bars, which are currently exempt from the law (along with bowling alleys and bingo halls). As it stands now, 35,000 employees are exposed to secondhand smoke on the job statewide, according to the American Lung Association of Oregon (and the US Surgeon General says those folks are up to 30 percent more likely to get lung cancer and heart disease because of their smoky workplaces).

But the bill to expand the smoke-free law was blocked by the politically powerful Oregon Restaurant Association (ORA), which argued that a ban would be bad for the businesses. The association also argues that businesses should be able to continue making the smoking-or-non decision for themselves. "We are very much in the business of doing what the customer wants," says Elizabeth Peters, ORA's communications manager. "In general the Restaurant Association does find that more and more restaurants are going to the no-smoking options because that's what their customers would like."

The contentious issue will surely resurface in 2007: If clean-indoor-air activists can't get the legislature to pass a statewide ban next year, they'll certainly take the idea to the ballot—and likely spend a lot of money collecting signatures and campaigning to pass the measure. (In Washington, ban proponents spent nearly $1.6 million to pass the measure, which had little organized opposition.)

But would that effort be worth it in Oregon? In their 2005 report on our state, the American Lung Association (ALA) currently gives Oregon a "B" rating for our indoor air quality. In the four areas the ALA rates, our smoke-free air rating is our strong suit—even without a ban in bars. Meanwhile, the ALA gives Oregon an "F" for devoting money to tobacco prevention and control, a "D" for youth access, and a "C" for cigarette taxes—issues that seem to need more work than our air quality.

To be clear, a statewide smoking ban is something I'd get behind. But to play devil's advocate—is it worth spending thousands (or millions) of anti-smoking dollars to try and legislate something that is happening on its own? Could that money be better spent lobbying for things like increasing funding for tobacco prevention and control—something unlikely to happen naturally?

The Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oregon (TOFCO)—a coalition of more than 400 groups focused on decreasing tobacco use in Oregon—thinks a statewide ban is crucial, even if many Portland bars are ditching smoking voluntarily. The group—which will lobby legislators next year to expand the state's Clean Indoor Air Act to include bars, and will back a ballot measure effort in 2008 if the legislative drive fails—says the market is deciding too slowly for them to sit back and wait.

"How long should we wait for the market to decide? Is it okay if two more people get sick? A thousand?" says TOFCO Executive Director Tabithia Engle.

"The basic principle or premise behind what we're trying to do is that everyone deserves the right to clean breathe air," Engle continues. "Maybe in Portland the market is deciding. I think that's a valid point. But accept the truth—the Surgeon General recently released a report saying that the science is clear, the debate is over, second hand smoke kills people. We're trying to look out for the 35,000 workers statewide who have the right to breathe. From our perspective, it's a public health law that will protect a lot of people."