Venue closure fears – up in smoke

Plastic sheeting separates the smoking and eating sections at Black Cat, Fitzroy. Photo by Joshua Resnick.
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Patrons can breathe easy this summer, as it’s unlikely the new smoking laws will bankrupt your favourite venue, writes Joshua Resnick.

The heat was on for Victoria’s outdoor dining venues to find a balance for smoking and non-smoking patrons ahead of the summer rush. Most people would have noticed their favourite venues’ attempts to be compliant with the new smoking laws introduced on August 1 last year.

The big changes: mixed outdoor dining and smoking are now banned, and barriers up to 2.1 metres high or a four-metre distance must separate smoking areas from eating zones.

When the Andrews Government announced the change in 2015, there were fears some venues wouldn’t be able to survive. So how has one of the country’s last bastion for smokers coped with the change? 

With fines of over $7000 for non-compliance, venue operators are not taking the chance of being caught out. Some introduced a new regime immediately, while others adopted a trial and error approach to see what their customers wanted.

“The initial play was no food outside, because a lot of our regulars and a lot of our customers enjoy a nice quiet day sitting down in the beer garden having a ciggie and coffee,” says Jacinta Kuras, assistant manager of Black Cat, Fitzroy.

The trendy, plant-adorned Brunswick Street bar is a popular haunt for younger patrons, but not all of them smoke.

Eighteen per cent of 25-29 year-old Australians smoke, sharing the highest demographic with 40-49 year olds, according to the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey.

“We noticed groups going elsewhere because they couldn’t sit outside with their food,” says Kuras. Black Cat quickly halved its outdoor area to roughly half smoking, half dining until mid-afternoon, when their food sales die down a common approach other venues are adopting.

Kuras says some revenue may have been lost during the adjustment, but they have picked up extra morning trade as customers recognise her venue as smoking friendly.

“Some people get annoyed, but there is always going to be that person, you can’t please everyone,” says Kuras, who describes customer reactions to the law as generally understanding and out of the venues’ hands.

But it’s not just the known danger of second-hand smoke that advocacy groups are worried about. “Smoke-free areas also discourage young people from taking up smoking and help people who want to quit succeed in their attempts,” says Dr Sarah White, Director of Quit Victoria.

Some venues such as the Corner Hotel in Richmond and CBD rooftop bar, Loop Roof, completely banned smoking on their premises, although the reason is usually to appease the larger percentage of people who don’t smoke, not to discourage youths from partaking.

“Space for dining is more important than smoking,” says Abbey Cartmell, manager of Loop Roof. Cartmell decided to ban smoking outright as soon as the laws came into effect. She says the venue didn’t consider segregation an option because of the four-metre rule. “It would have been a nightmare.”

The change hasn’t been as easy for some venues, who have had to decide whether they want the trade of patrons who drink and smoke more.

“It all comes down to, do I want the guy that drinks five pints and smokes a pack of durries? Or do I want the guy that’s going to bring in five people, have a big meal then have a couple of jugs of beer? You get the same amount of money, it’s just a different person that comes in,” says Tyson Cummings, Manager of the Fitzroy Beer Garden on Gertrude Street.

Tyson Cummings tires to accommodate smokers and non-smokers. Photo by Joshua Resnick.

Cummings, a smoker himself, says the business opted for a compromise.

He now bans smoking during the day at the large beer garden, relegating smokers to a small area down the side of the building.

But on weekend nights when the business is usually operating at capacity, smokers rule. A small area outside is closed off by glass for diners with 90 per cent left purely for smoking and drinking.

He says the new laws completely changed the way the business operates and was a hassle for staff. The large venue has more outdoor and alfresco sections than indoor ones and is a popular daytime and late-night destination for locals.

Cummings is vocal about the fines hanging over the head of businesses and patrons. ”$7000 fine for the venue and $700 fine for the patron? Come on man…”

While the fines are substantial, Victorians may be able to relax for the time being. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, it’s unlikely fines will be issued as everyone finds their feet.

“The first priority of the inspector is to make sure smokers and businesses understand the new ban,” stated the spokesperson via email.

While local government inspectors make the rounds, several bars surveyed say they’ve already found the ideal arrangement to suit their clientele, revenue loss was insignificant and most customers are accepting of their changes and the laws.

Despite the extra work involved, Cummings says he probably didn’t lose or gain any revenue and accepts that the change was inevitable.

“We’re one of the last states to hold out, to keep our smoking laws what they were. Honestly, all things need to change. Give it about a year, everybody will completely forget about all the hassle, nobody will care anymore,” he says.