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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Survey indicates bars are hurting from smoking ban

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A study of the economic effects of Toledo's smoking ban on area bars released yesterday and paid for by ban opponents claims area bars had a significant decrease in sales and work force in the first six months of the ban's full enforcement.

Ronald W. Coon, Sr., a certified public accountant in the area since 1986 who's taught accounting classes at Owens Community College since 1989, said he was hired by Citizens for Common Sense, a group opposed to the smoking ban, to conduct a survey of the effects of Toledo's Clean Indoor Air Ordinance on the local economy.

"I do not have any bars or restaurants as clients. I'm trying to stay as much down the middle of the road as possible in this thing," Mr. Coon said, adding that 85 percent of his practice comes from compliance audits with nonprofit groups.

Mr. Coon mailed a written survey to all 157 bars in Toledo's 2003 phone book asking their accountants to compare their gross sales and number of employees for the first half of 2003 to the first half of 2004, just after the ban was fully enforced.

Of those, 26 - about 20 percent - responded, Mr. Coon said. The respondants claimed a loss of about $2 million in gross sales during the first half of 2004, a 24.5 percent decrease from the previous year, and 611 lost full and part-time jobs.

Mr. Coon said 60 percent of the financial information he received from the bars came directly from their accounting firms, and the remainder came from bar owners.

Mr. Coon said he could not identify the 26 bars that responded to the survey or their accounting firms tbecause of confidentiality issues.

Members of Citizens for Common Sense say the survey supports what they've been saying all along. "I was surprised that the numbers were actually higher than I thought they were going to be. The law has certainly had a big effect," bar owner Jim Avolt said.

Supporters of the smoking ban also say the results aren't any big surprise, though for far different reasons.

"What do you expect people who are against the ban to tell you?" asked Jan Ruma, spokesman for the Northwest Ohio Strategic Alliance for Tobacco Control. "I'm sure there are individual bars and restaurants that have had an economic downturn in this period, but I have seen no proof that you can tie this to the ban."

Particularly perturbed by the study is James Price, who headed a similar study - released in August and paid for by the Ohio Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Foundation - that concluded the ban had no "statistically significant" effect on Toledo bars and restaurants when compared to their suburban counterparts.

That study was criticized by opponents of the ban, most notably because of Mr. Price's stance that contacting bar owners directly for their financials would lead to results "that are about as biased as you can get." Instead, Mr. Price analyzed data from financial information firm Dun & Bradstreet, which Mr. Avolt claims to his knowledge never contacted any area bars. Dun & Bradstreet has remained silent on the controversy.

Now given the chance to review a study paid for by his critics, Mr. Price points to what he calls "serious flaws" in the new study's methodology: There is no way to validate the study's findings, and the response rate was low.

"The study is worthless. One of the basic cardinal rules of survey research is to have a good return rate. If you don't have over 50 percent, then you have a biased sample," said Mr. Price, who is a professor of public health at the University of Toledo. "When three out of four people or more don't respond, that means there's something strange or unique about those that did respond - in some way, they have some vested interest in wanting to express their opinion on that topic."

In other words, those bars that are losing money will be the most inclined to reply, and those that are not, will not.

That may be true, said John Tarnai, director of the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center of Washington State University, which researches the most effective ways to design and carry out surveys.

But then again, it may not.

"It can go both ways: People can have a vested interest in a topic, but it's also possible that people that didn't respond because they just didn't have the time," he said.

As for the 20 percent figure, Mr. Tarnai called that "pretty typical" for a one-time mailing.

Overall, Mr. Tarnai stressed that more should be done to find out why many bar owners didn't reply to the survey to determine whether the results really represent Toledo bars as a whole. "It's very hard to determine until you gather more data," he said.

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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