Catch the latest Booze Nooze

This week, all the bars on Capitol Hill, as well as elsewhere in the state, officially go smokeless. Some bar owners have predicted a fiscal disaster, as smoking customers would find fewer reasons to linger in their favorite watering holes.

Between the gay bars, the hipster bars, the restaurants with lounges and a precious few un-reconstructed old dive bars, alcohol service is one of Capitol Hill's biggest employers and most prominent industries. It's an industry that's continued to thrive while the rest of the regional economies sputtered and faltered.

Back in the day

One reason it's continued to thrive has been its steady, piecemeal deregulation. A few oldtimers remember when hard liquor by the drink (a.k.a. cocktails) could only be served in Washington state at private clubs, such as the Elks. Later, from the 1950s on, the strong stuff could only be served in full-service restaurants.

These restaurants had to offer full meals, devote more seating area to dining than to drinking, and earn a certain percentage of their revenues from food as opposed to liquor. In these places, as well as in beer-and-wine-only taverns, the taps officially shut down at 1 a.m. Monday through Friday, and at midnight on Saturday. Sundays were dry all day.

Even the number of drinking places in a neighborhood was restricted, by regulations designed to limit "destination" nightlife areas. The idea was to limit drunk driving by making people drink closer to their homes, but it never really worked in that regard; particularly in the suburbs, where everybody drove anyway.

Over the years, the Washington State Liquor Control Board relaxed these restrictions a little at a time. Perhaps the two most important steps came in the mid-1990s.

The neighborhood bar limits were eased, leading to robust nightlife zones in Pike-Pine, Belltown, South Lake Union and, most recently, in Fremont.

Cocktail lounges still had to offer something vaguely resembling food, but no longer had to be adjuncts to restaurants-the "bar menu" could be as simple as microwaved frozen entrees. This move, which coincided with the outbreak of the "cocktail nation" fad, gave previously beer-and-wine-only outlets access to higher profit-margin items, making the whole business less of a gamble.

Tough laws

But while public drinking became more convenient, public smoking was the new target of restriction. With the passage of a state initiative last month, Washington's now got the nation's toughest anti-smoking laws.

As a result, a local hospitality industry that had seen nothing but growth for a decade now sees a threat to its livelihood.

Cigar bars, and that new downtown fad of hookah bars, will have to sue the state in court to continue existing.

Bars will no longer get big promotional incentives and advertising support from tobacco companies. (Bars will still be allowed to sell smokes for off-premises consumption.)

And fewer regular customers, some bar owners predict, will show up. When they do show up, they'll linger for shorter amounts of time, hence buying fewer drinks, because their nicotine urges will force them outside.

I have my doubts about the latter concern. There are more and more nonsmokers out there these days, though you wouldn't know it if you hung out at some bars. I know several people who no longer go to bars or nightclubs, even when their favorite musical act's playing, out of an aversion to second-hand smoke. The absence of such smoke from drinking establishments can increase, not decrease, their potential customer base.

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In other Booze Nooze, Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen has introduced a bill that would offficially designate all of central Seattle, including Capitol Hill, as an "alcohol impact area."

The anti-smoking law impacts on-premises drinking spots; Rasmussen's bill would impact retail stores. These businesses would no longer be allowed to sell fortified wines or malt liquors. They couldn't sell single cans or bottles of beer or single-serving bottles of wine. They couldn't sell any alcohol prior to 9 a.m. daily (up from the current 6 a.m.).

Such restrictions have already been "voluntarily" imposed on retailers in the Central Area and Pioneer Square; but that's just sent these products' customers elsewhere. Now Rasmussen wants to impose it, on a mandatory basis, upon a wide swath of the city.

This bill is unabashedly class-biased. It would make it harder for poor people to get cheap booze. It wouldn't help poor alcoholics get treatment. It wouldn't stop people with money from making drunken fools of themselves in public. It would only affect the surface image of Seattle as a "clean city" inhabited only by "nice people."

Clark Humphrey's column appears in the first issue of each month. His long-running website on popular culture is www.misc

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