Tobacco Education Center


Going Smoke-Free can be Painless (2004)

by Jack E. Lohman


The key factor is how you make the change. When we questioned the owners who had already converted to smoke-free restaurants, one point stood out: Those who took a low-key approach did not fare as well as those who made a splash with it. Some owners had felt that a cautious approach would offend fewer smokers and thus reduce potential losses. But being fearful of losing smokers and slowly and quietly banning smoking gets the word out to only one group of people: your current customers.


If you do lose a few smokers, the cautious approach will provide fewer nonsmokers to take their place-that is, until word of mouth slowly gets to and draws in new nonsmoking customers. Even if a slight dip is experienced in the beginning, you will draw nonsmokers from your competitors and eventually the gains will offset losses. But that process is slower than it needs to be.


If you are looking for an immediate gain -- an increase, not just a status quo -- make a splash with it. Advertise it. Brag about it. Those owners who experienced the greatest gains were those who were the most vocal about their conversion to smoke-free.


If you have already made your decision, go for it. But if you are unsure, take survey and also take the opportunity to communicate your concerns about employee safety.


Remember, though, this survey omits those nonsmokers who were once your customers and are no longer as well as the new ones you could be attracting if you were smoke-free. While this makes the results biased against you they will still favor being smoke-free.


If the number of people who will eat there more frequently exceeds -- even by 1 percent -- the number who will eat there less frequently, you can count on an increase in business. When you convert, give ample notice. Announcing the change two weeks before will diffuse the concerns of most smokers by the time the conversion date rolls around.


Finally, advertise your new policy. Big! When you allowed smoking, it is reasonable to assume that you lost at least some nonsmoking customers to smoke-free restaurants elsewhere, or maybe they just stopped going out to eat.


Nonetheless, they were lost, you probably want to get them back. The only way you can regain lost nonsmokers is to let them know about your new clean air policy. If you do not advertise, they may never hear about it on their own. Furthermore, you want to attract nonsmoking customers from your smoky competitors and attract nonsmokers who have avoided eating out in the past because of tobacco smoke problems.


Highlight "Smoke-Free" in every ad! Think about it: 75 percent of the people reading your newspaper ads are nonsmokers. Another 13 percent are smokers who either prefer smoke-free dining themselves or already sit in nonsmoking sections with their family and friends. Since your nonsmoking policy will appeal to 88 percent of the readers, why would you want to keep it a secret?


You also need to get to your current nonsmokers before they jump ship. Maybe they have not seen your signs, or they have just considered themselves lucky to have clean air the last few time they were there. But you could be at risk of losing some to another smoke free eatery if you do not make them aware. Do not take the risk. These folks will be your biggest boosters in drawing in new business.


And don't be afraid of controversy. Welcome it. The more the better. Even complaints from smokers will help spread the word to the nonsmokers you want to attract. Even negative letters to the editor work in your favor and will keep the issue alive. In fact, hope that controversy does develop, because you and your staff will be the major beneficiaries.


Although many smokers may prefer smoke-free dining, do not needlessly upset those remaining smokers. Smart planning will let you save all but a few of the heaviest smokers -- the few that created most of the smoke anyway.


Jack E. Lohman is director of the Wisconsin Initiative on Smoking and Health, headquartered in Milwaukee.


While, restaurant operators are always faced with new decisions, the major one today is not how much space should be allocated to nonsmoking, but whether smoking should be allowed at all.


Although the idea of eliminated smoking might seem a bit radical to some, it tends to grab people's attention when they learn that it can both increase revenue and reduce health risks for themselves and employees:


∑Of the nearly 300 Wisconsin restaurants that have gone smoke-free, we know of not one that has experienced sustained losses as a result. Gains have almost always offset losses.


∑Most have shown increases. Some are slight (3 percent to 5 percent); some have been moderate (10 percent to 15 percent); and a couple significant (30 percent to 60 percent).


It would be foolhardy to ignore those successes. The operators are getting their increases from three important areas: (1) old customers who were previously chases away by smokers and are now coming back, (2) new nonsmokers who have in the past avoided eating out, and (3) new nonsmokers attracted from smoky competitors.


It would be erroneous to assume that because 25 percent of the adult population smokes, 25 percent of your patrons would be lost if smoking were banned in your restaurant. That simply hasn't happened.


Indeed, most smokers do not quit eating in their favorite restaurant when it goes smoke-free; they just quit smoking in it. Smokers light up in restaurants not because they have to, be because they are allowed to. If they couldn't, most would accept the prohibition.


But one thing is for sure: Smokers do chase away nonsmokers. And as smokers return and nonsmokers find clean air elsewhere, they chase away even more nonsmokers. The repetitive cycle ultimately results in a predominantly smoky clientele and a situation very difficult to reverse.


 



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