Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday August 27th 2014

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Up In Smoke

One More Local Bar Debates Going Smoke-Free
by Jeremy Morrison

Over the past two decades, public smoking has been relegated to sidewalks and doorways. Many states have banned it from all public buildings.

Florida enacted a smoking ban in 2003, but bars are excluded. Smoke is still allowed to waft lazily past the neon beer signs and exhausted filtration systems of the state’s drinking establishments.

While bars are exempt from the smoking ban, many of the local establishments have voluntarily imposed such bans. Owners have cited employee health concerns, personal preference and customer feedback as factors in their decisions.

Wisteria Tavern is the oldest bar in Pensacola. Nestled on East Hill’s 12th Avenue, the cozy neighborhood haunt opened up in the mid-1930s. Up until a couple of years ago, patrons were allowed to smoke inside.

“I just couldn’t stand the smoke anymore,” said Terry Abbott, owner of Wisteria.

Abbott is not a smoker himself. He said he wished he had made the change earlier.

“Business is better now than it’s ever been before,” Abbott adds.

Out at Pensacola Beach, Paddy O’Leary’s Irish Pub may also be going smoke-free. Seamus Hunt, the bar’s co-owner, floated the idea on Paddy’s Facebook page. He asked for feedback and promised a more comfortable smoking area outside.

“Gary [Humphrey] and I hate the smoke and we hear ongoing complaints,” Hunt posted. “Would you be more likely to come in if it was smoke free? Are you a smoker? Would you still come in if you are a smoker?”

The response has been mostly positive. But Hunt already suspected that would be the case.

“A lot of customers would tell me, ‘oh, we love Paddy O’Leary’s, but we hate the smoke,’” he said. “I heard that umpteen times.”

Hunt knows that Mike Ashby turned downtown’s Intermission into a smoke-free establishment last year. He’s heard good things.

“From what I hear, it was a very big success for him,” Hunt said.

Intermission is located on Palafox in downtown Pensacola. Smokers were ushered outside its doors in 2011.

“It was a year ago March, it’s been great, it’s been fantastic,” said Ashby. “I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner.”

For a little more than a year, smokers at Intermission have had to step out back, or enjoy their cigarettes at one of the tables framed by the iconic tile work outside the entrance.

“You don’t have far to walk,” said Ashby.

Like the folks at Wisteria and Paddy’s, Ashby didn’t enjoy working in a smoky environment. He didn’t like breathing it in, or smelling like smoke.

“Of course, your clothes and hair,” Ashby said. “You walk out—you know how it is—you walk out and you smell like smoke.”

Smelling of stale cigarette smoke pales, however, in comparison to the health risks associated with smoking tobacco or breathing in second-hand smoke. Studies have shown that restaurant and bar employees are exposed to significantly higher amounts of second-hand smoke than the general populace or their office-working counterparts.

Hunt said the market is the main force driving his decision. More customers than not prefer their pints without the smoke.

“We’ve always had a lot of complaints from the customers about the smoke,” he said.

But Paddy O’Leary’s won’t be going completely smoke-free—at least, not right away.

“I think we’re going to phase it in to start off with,” Hunt said.

The bar’s day crowd tends to be comprised of more smokers than the evening crowd. In an effort to please as many people as possible, smoking will be allowed during the daytime, but not at night.

“There’s 22 people in there and 21 of them are smoking during the day,” explained Hunt, adding that his day-shift staff have their own concerns—“our daytime employees definitely don’t want to lose our daytime customers.”

Some patrons at Wisteria grumbled a bit when Abbott decided to ban smoking. After all, change is tough after more than 70 years.

“Anytime you make a change that drastic it takes a little while,” said Abbott.

At Intermission the switch was also met with a few scowls. The “older, happy-hour guy” wasn’t ready for change.

“I have had a few come in and they don’t like it, but it’s a short conversation,” Ashby said. “The old-timers that went to happy hours, they’re used to having a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.”

At Azalea Lounge, off of Davis Highway, smokers still enjoy holding that cigarette in the other hand. The idea of sending them outside to smoke seemed to strike bartender Melba Murphy as odd.

“It’d lose a lot of the customers,” she said.

Murphy has been at Azalea’s—or The Z—for many years, through two owners. She believes the cliental appreciates the atmosphere the bar provides.

“I think the biggest reason is that most of our customers smoke,” Murphy said.

And while smoking used to be commonplace in public—certainly in bars—its tolerance now earns establishments reputations. Places become known—for good or bad, depending on perspective—as somewhere that’s bound to be wall-to-wall fog.

“Did I mention this place is smoky?” wrote one online reviewer of Azalea’s. “You will come out of here with burning eyes and a desire to deep clean your hair and every piece of clothing you have on, not excluding underwear.”

Murphy said the smoke doesn’t bother her—“I been at it so long”— when she’s tending bar. She guesses most of the other employees don’t care either.

“I think all of ’em but myself smoke, anyways,” Murphy said.

A number of states have taken the step of banning smoking in bars. Hunt’s native Ireland went that direction some years ago. He wishes Florida would extend its ban to cover bars.

“That’s what I wish would happen here,” Hunt said. “That’d make it easier. Much easier.”

If other local transition tales serve as any model, Paddy’s shouldn’t expect to suffer much backlash from stubbing out the smoking. The move appears to have played well for other bars in the area.

“It’s been a good year,” said Ashby, looking back on Intermission’s first smoke-free year. “I think I’ve seen a small increase in business, it smells better and I feel healthier.”