Over the past decade Representative Sheila Francoeur, of the New Hampshire legislature, has carved out a reputation as a steadfast opponent of banning smoking in her state's lounges and restaurants. Now she has reversed her position and become a major sponsor of a bill that would ban smoking in all public places, including restaurants and bars. And it's all because of Maine.
Francouer says she always feared that a law against smoking in New Hampshire would send tourists to other more tobacco-friendly places, such as Maine, where until 2004 smoking was still allowed in bars. (It was banned in restaurants in 1999.) "The one thing that changed my mind is the fact that Maine went completely smoke-free when it banned smoking in lounges," she explains, "and it had little or no effect on their business. That left New Hampshire as the only New England state that was not smoke-free. Then it became a health issue, not an economic one."
For years almost every debate about proposals to reduce or eliminate smoking in public places in Maine included fears that they would hurt tourism. Yet the reality has never matched the concerns.
"There has been no adverse impact," states Dann Lewis, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. "The Maine Restaurant Association had been very concerned when the anti-smoking laws went into effect, but from what I'm hearing Maine has seen the same experience other states have had: a slight downturn at first, then business activity actually improves."
Lewis and others involved in tourism in Maine have only anecdotal evidence about the impact of the state's tough new bans on smoking in all restaurants and bars. But their conclusions match those of more formal studies done outside Maine. A report released in April 2005 by Harvard School of Public Health researcher Gregory Connolly showed that the Massachusetts hospitality industry lost no revenue when that state passed a smoking ban. In New York City, after the city's smoke-free law took effect March 30, 2003, business receipts for restaurants and bars increased, employment rose, and the number of liquor licenses increased, according to published reports.
"There were no effects on the restaurant part of our business," notes John Hall, owner of J.R. Maxwell's, a popular eatery in Bath. "[The ban] has actually been a plus. The naysayers were wrong on that." Even in the bar area, Hall adds, "most people have adapted. I think it makes the bar more pleasant, and customers have told me the same thing."
These days his only concern is the number of smokers who cluster outside the doors to bars. "Sometimes you have ten or fifteen people standing around outside the entrance," he complains. "You're asking customers to wade through them to reach the door, and you have to keep the area clean."
tobacco use has been under full-scale assault in Maine for years, in particular since a 1996 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that a third of all young adults eighteen to thirty years old smoked, the highest rate in the country. Even worse, in the eyes of many, an astonishing 25 percent of Maine teenagers described themselves as frequent smokers [Down East, August 1998].
"None of the organizations involved in [anti-smoking efforts] saw it coming," recalls Ed Miller, executive director of the Maine Lung Association. "The  report was a real whack on the side of the head for us to do something."
Financed by increases in the tobacco excise tax and, after the late 1990s, millions of dollars each year from the tobacco industry itself in settlement of lawsuits by state attorneys general, Maine mounted an aggressive educational campaign against smoking. The efforts culminated this year when Maine became the first state ever to receive straight As on the annual anti-smoking report card issued by the American Lung Association.
"We were the first state in the United States to frame the debate over smoking in restaurants and bars as a workplace safety issue," Miller recalls. "It was unfair for waitresses, bartenders, and musicians to be exposed to secondhand smoke."
The restaurant prohibition did not come without a fight. "The Maine Restaurant Association was very concerned about a ban in restaurants," Miller recalls. "The legal line between restaurants and bars was a little blurry, and the association wanted a level playing field."
"Our position early on was that it was either a health issue or it wasn't," explains Richard A. Grotton, long-time president of the Maine Restaurant Association. "The original bill [in 1998] banned smoking everywhere — restaurants, bars, beano halls, you name it. I told the legislative committee that we'd remain neutral if it was a health issue, but if they started making exceptions, then we would have a problem. About twenty minutes later, they exempted lounges."
True to its promise, the association defeated that bill, but a similar measure passed in 1999. To this day Grotton insists that the measure forced the closure of some small diners in Maine that lost business because blue-collar smokers took their coffee-and-doughnuts business to convenience stores so they could smoke in their vehicles.
"I thought the outright ban was taking a sledgehammer to the problem," he maintains. "The public was already saying it wanted more nonsmoking tables in restaurants and even separate rooms. And the public was okay with smoking in bars."
Grotton argues that increased public demand for smoke-free dining would have created a natural evolution away from tobacco use in restaurants. He cites his own experience as a restaurant owner in the 1990s. "Over five years we moved from 75 percent of our seats set aside for smokers to none at all, except in the bar," he says. "In another five years we would have gone completely smoke-free."
Portland passed a city ordinance against smoking in restaurants a year before the statewide prohibition went into effect. Grotton admits the experience of businesses there surprised him. "Gritty McDuff's [a popular Old Port nightspot] banned smoking completely when the restaurant ban went into effect, and it didn't affect them a bit," he recalls. "You could have bowled me over. DiMillo's restaurant held out for a long time by using an outside deck, but finally gave in, and it didn't hurt them at all, either."
Still, Grotton claims there is "no question" that some Maine bars and restaurants along the border with New Hampshire are losing business because of the states' different smoking policies. Currently New Hampshire permits smoking in bars and allows restaurants to have separate smoking sections for diners. "If New Hampshire passes a ban, that levels the playing field," he notes.
going smoke-free is a global trend, according to Dann Lewis in the Maine Office of Tourism, although Maine in particular and the United States in general seem to be leading the way. "Even London has instituted smoking restrictions, which I never thought I would see," he points out.
Bath restaurateur Hall says he still has some tourists come in and ask for nonsmoking seats. "They assume Maine allows smoking, and they're surprised when they find out we don't," he explains. The very few people who ask for a smoking section don't seem particularly upset to find there isn't one. Hall remains unconvinced that tourists care much one way or the other. "There are so many other factors that affect tourism, such as the price of gasoline, that I don't think [smoking] is a factor," he says.
Vaughn Stinson, at the Maine Tourism Association, counters that he hears reports all the time from the state's visitor centers that tourists like the idea that Maine is a smoke-free place. "People tell our staff members that they're glad Maine doesn't allow smoking in restaurants, for example," he reports.
"Initially I heard some fears from members after the ban that we would lose business to New Hampshire, but I've seen no evidence at all that we've lost any amount of business," Stinson says. "I haven't seen any signs on the bridge over the Piscataqua saying 'Don't go to Maine because you can't smoke there.' "
In fact, Maine might make its fresh air a tourism plus. According to the 2005 Zagat Survey of America's top restaurants, Americans overwhelmingly prefer smoke-free hospitality venues. Some 82 percent of the consumers in the survey preferred tobacco prohibitions in restaurants, and the report noted that eight of the top ten U.S. travel destinations listed by the American Society of Travel Agents have strong smoke-free laws.
"It's something we should be shouting from the mountaintops," says Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "We're about the only state in the country that can say, 'Welcome to Maine, you can breathe easier here.' It's something the vast majority of Americans, even smokers, want."
Mills says she has been working with the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation to have signs erected along the highways coming into Maine boasting about the state's clean-air laws. "We've had signs at airports for several years," she points out.
The Zagat survey and others do not normally include visitors from other countries where smoking is far more common than it is in the United States. "There was a big concern when smoking was outlawed in restaurants, and even more so after the bar ban, that we would see an effect on international travel," explains Greg Dugal of the Maine Innkeepers Association. He notes that most hotels and motels in Maine usually reserve only 15 percent or less of their rooms for smokers these days "except places that cater to hunters or get a lot of Canadian visitors."
The 9/11 terror attacks sharply reduced the number of foreign visitors to Maine, Dugal notes, so it's difficult to say if the state suffered any loss of overseas business as a result of the antismoking laws. He expects to see statistics soon that show the number of foreign visitors in 2005 finally approaching the levels of 2000, and hopes for even higher numbers this year.
Over in New Hampshire, which is foreign enough for some Mainers, Francouer is confident that a smoking ban will be approved, if not this year then soon. "The New Hampshire Hospitality and Lodging Association has not taken a position on the bill this year," she notes. "It has always fought similar measures in the past. I think it's time. You folks survived. So will we."