The Survey as PR

Author: Gene Borio

"Business at New York bars and restaurants has plummeted by as much as 50 percent in the wake of the smoking ban - and the drop has already sparked layoffs and left some establishments on the brink of shutting their doors, a Post survey has found."

--Cig Ban Leaves Lot Of 'Empties', New York Post, May 12, 2003


On May 12, 2003, the New York Post ran two stories on its survey of 50 "randomly selected" New York City bars and restaurants. 1,2. The survey found that,

"34 of the 50 businesses queried have shown a decline in business since April. . . The median of those reporting declines was a 30 percent cut in business."

The news media universally accepted the Post survey at face value and repeated its findings without qualification, giving readers the impression that restaurant business really had fallen off by as much as 50 percent.

The AP distributed the story around the world as straight news. 3. The Washington Post's "Media Critic" quoted the NY Post sans criticism. 4 A Connecticut newspaper used the report to rail against an incipient state-wide smoking ban. 5 New Zealand's Hospitality Association--erroneously attributing the survey to the New York Times--used it to argue against smokefree legislation. 6 And to right wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, the survey was the very pinnacle of scientific endeavor. 7 Within a month, the findings had entered a never-never-land of received knowledge, disembodied from any source at all, and often deployed as established or likely fact in efforts to defeat smokefree air legislation in other localities. (See examples below.*)

Why the media should take this survey so literally is a mystery, as it was uncredited, unverifiable, and had glaring faults.

1. The survey was clearly not done by a professional research company; it was solely referenced as a "Post survey." The survey was actually conducted by the reporter herself. Her data is not available.

2. It seems unlikely that this was a "random" survey. The random claim, repeated by the Post as late as May 24, 2003 8 seems on its face, misleading--at least 4 of the restaurateurs cited were on record as opposing smoking bans. The law of averages argues against these four opponents randomly turning up in a survey of 50 out of the 20,000-plus drinking and eating establishments in New York City. 9, 10 Even considering the author's sources--two Zagat's Guides--that still entails 2,100 establishments. Since the data is unavailable, it's impossible to tell if the other businesses reporting losses were similar known opponents.

3. The survey design mimics a notorious tobacco industry PR tactic, the "30% Myth." 11

To elaborate:

1. Jeane MacIntosh, the author of the articles, said in a phone interview on June 12, 2003 that she had conducted the survey herself by phoning owners or managers from an economic cross section of 50 bars and restaurants chosen out of the Zagat's NYC Restaurants Guide and Zagat's NYC Nightlife Guide.

2. At least three smoking ban opponents from the 1994-95 battle were featured in the NY Post's random survey: Joan Borkowski 12, Buzzy O'Keefe. 13 and John McFadden. 14 A fourth restaurateur, Langan's proprietor Desi O'Brien, had voiced his opposition to the 2003 ban in at least two newspaper articles 15,16 --one of which was in the NY Post itself. In 1994, Langan's was a signator to a full page ad in the New York Post--opposing the proposed legislation "because it will hurt our business." The ad was paid for by the signators and "The United Restaurant, Hotel Tavern Association of New York State, Inc., Lorillard Tobacco Company and Philip Morris U.S.A." 16.5

No restaurateur's previous opposition was mentioned. In addition, one bar surveyed was named "Smoke."

That 4 noted smoking ban opponents should represent a random survey strains credulity, but one of the cited opponents was something more than that. Joan Borkowski, owner of Billy's Tavern, was afforded an entire companion article, "1870 Bar May Get $nuffed Out."

But the Post neglected to inform its readers that in 1995, Borkowski was the leader of a vaporous Philip Morris-funded group, the Manhattan Tavern and Restaurant Owners Association**, which fought to repeal the city's new smoking ban.

On May 9, 1995, Borkowski held a meeting to release 2 opinion surveys. One survey was commissioned by the Philip Morris-funded National Smokers Alliance (NSA); the other was sponsored by the Philip Morris-funded United Restaurant, Hotel, Tavern Association of New York State (AKA New York Tavern & Restaurant Association ***). At the Hotel Roosevelt meeting --which was facilitated by a NSA-financed 10,000-restaurant mailing on "Billy's Tavern" letterhead--Borkowski released the surveys in association with the NSA. 12 The New York Post reported:

"[S]urveys by the National Smokers Alliance and the New York Tavern and Restaurant Association found that 51 percent of the restaurants suffered a drop in sales since the ban became law 30 days ago."17

Author Jeane MacIntosh said she was not in town during the 1994-95 smoking ban wars, and thus did not necessarily know that three of her referenced proprietors had publicly fought the ban. She said her survey also included interviews with smoking ban advocates-- Michael O'Neal, for example, and "the proprietor of Joe Allen's." Neither was cited in the article, although one sentence did read, "Eleven bars or restaurants noted little to no change, and three of them in Manhattan - Daniel, Bemelman's Bar and Automatic Slims - said business has been up since the ban." Other than this sentence, the article emphasized the negative responses, and even featured an accompanying picture of an empty bar with the caption,

"BORED SHOTLESS: The staff at the Playwright Grill on Eighth Avenue in the Theatre District has lots of time to kill, now that smokers are staying away from the bar."

3. It's odd to consider that newspapers with reputations to protect, such as the Washington Post and the Times of London, would accept the New York Post as an unqualifiedly reliable source of information. But in fact none of the media repeating these findings questioned the survey.

Not one news organization even noted the 2 stories' website header:

"Has your bar or restaurant been fined or warned for having patrons smoke? Give The Post a call at 212 930-8500 and tell us your story."

This plea ran on many online Post stories throughout May, 2003, and for months after existed as a prominent footer at the Post's News Index page at http://www.nypost.com/news/news.htm. It was last seen here on August 12, 2003

Further, not one news organization noted the Post's history of strong editorial antagonism not only to previous smokefree policies 18, but to this ban in particular. 19 Not one noted the Post's casual attitude to separating news from editorial. Not one noted the Post's striking lack of coverage of the health hazards of smoking throughout the '90s--despite its weekly "Health" page. And not one noted that during this period -- from 1989 to 2001--the New York Post's owner, Rupert Murdoch, sat on the Board of Directors of Philip Morris. 20

Implications:

The Post survey follows the pattern set by a tobacco industry tactic that has been used since 1987. The survey-as-PR tactic was exposed by Consumer Reports in 1994 and dubbed "The 30% Myth." (See excerpt below.****)

The weakness of such surveys is that they are based solely on opinions, which can not only be wrong, they can often be manipulated. These surveys are usually deployed 1) during legislative battles or 2) shortly after a smoking ban has gone into effect. Scientifically verifiable studies based on tax and employment data have consistently proven these surveys to be not only grossly exaggerated, but plainly wrong. 21

A prime example of this weakness may be found in New York City itself, when it passed a restaurant smoking ban in 1995. Immediately after it went into effect, the Tobacco Institute hired Price Waterhouse to perform monthly opinion surveys. These polls all concluded the ban was hurting the restaurant business. But in fact, restaurant and hotel sales tax receipts actually increased in the city after the ban--while decreasing in the rest of the state. 21b

It should be noted that these surveys can be greatly influenced by previous PR efforts. Long before the survey, a tobacco company, PR firm or front group can prepare the ground by unleashing an ad campaign projecting business losses. After this, it can then directly contact restaurateurs--through mailings, phone calls, and personal visits--and present a few harrowing stories and prognostications. A few months later, when confronted by surveyors, a restaurateur may well repeat such assertions.

For maximum PR effect, the sin of commission may be accompanied by sins of omission. Most of the outlets and authors cited below failed to note a major June, 2003 study from Cornell University. 22 This study of taxable sales and employment levels in 5 New York localities (4 counties plus New York City and its boroughs) which had passed smoking bans since 1995, found that as of December, 2002,

"Statistically significant increases in eating and drinking and hotel taxable sales were associated with the presence of the smoke-free regulations." [emphasis added]

The PR power of a survey like the Post's is greatly magnified when restaurateurs in other localities read unquestioning news coverage of it. In the absence of solid sales-tax data, such a survey can represent the only information available. A rumored decline in business due to a smoking ban can, with repitition and aggressive promotion by vested interests, become received knowledge, often disembodied from its source and continuously refreshed and rehashed by tobacco companies and even by the ostensibly disinterested media.

In summary: one unscientific survey can be accepted by the media at face value, and can function as powerful PR, spreading fear and misinformation worldwide with astonishing speed.


* A Sampling of media coverage of the economic results of New York City's smoking ban:

  • "The CRA (Colorado Restaurant Association) counters that establishments in New York City and Tempe, Arizona are reporting a 12 percent to 30 percent decline in sales since smoking bans were passed." 23
  • "Deborah Dowdell, executive vice president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association . . . . said the economic impact of a ban on the restaurant industry would be devastating. . . . 'New York and Delaware have instituted similar smoking bans, and restaurants there are experiencing a 20 to 50 percent decline in business. Can New Jersey restaurants sustain such a hit?'" 24
  • "Tips, patrons and working hours are down and layoffs are up since New York restaurants were forced to go smoke-free, according to Colleen McShane, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association." 25
  • "Since New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed through a regulation banning smoking in bars and restaurants, business has declined by up to 50 per cent in Big Apple eateries and saloons." 26
  • "Just a glimpse of the news coming out of New York City and Delaware is enough to cause Larry Shuemate's knees to wobble behind the long bar of his South 2nd Street business. . . . Business at New York City bars and restaurants plummets by up to 50 percent." 27
  • "[S]tatistics have shown that bar and restaurant business has dropped steadily in New York City since the law went into effect. . . . Studies have shown within the past year that while patronage at New York City's bars and restaurants has declined, the opposite effect has taken place across the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J., where there is no smoking ban." 28
  • "Gail F Cooper's claim (Irish Examiner letters, June 25) that the Californian ban on smoking in bars and cafes has increased business can be counterbalanced by New York's 30%-40% decrease in patronage over the past two months." 29
  • "Officials in New York created uproar when they banned smoking in around 13,000 places in April . . . Reports have suggested that some businesses have seen their trade decline by as much as 50 per cent since the ban started." 30 (Yet this Times of London overview of smoking bans around the world failed to take note of the many and consistent study findings indicating no loss of restaurant business due to smoking bans.)
  • "Although the mayor says only one in four New Yorkers smoke, owners and managers of bars claim business has dropped by up to 40% since the ban was introduced and that they have been forced to lay off staff" 31
  • "[Mr Finbar Murphy of the Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance] has cited the example of New York, where there are reports that there has been an average loss of around 30% in the business sector since the ban was introduced there in April." 32
  • "Initial reports say the ban has produced an average loss in business of 30%," says the [Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance]. 33


    ** AKA New Yorkers United to Repeal the Ban, AKA New Yorkers Unite!


    *** Scott Wexler's organization has had a confusing plethora of names, making it difficult to track its activities. It has been known variously as the United Restaurant, Hotel, Tavern Association of New York State (c. 1994) and the New York Tavern & Restaurant Association (c. 1995, though there is some overlap with URHTA in the media). Since April, 1996, it has been known as the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association.


    **** Excerpt from:

    Where there's smoke
    Source: Consumer Reports
    Date: May 1994

    SELF-SERVING SURVEYS

    THE 30 PERCENT MYTH

    When pro-tobacco forces in California want to scare communities away from public-smoking bans, they sometimes use seemingly objective surveys that show restaurants losing an average of 30 percent of their revenue after bans go into effect. The figure and the surveys that produced it are far less scientific than they have been made to appear.

    Restaurants in Beverly Hills, for example, are said to have lost 30 percent of their business during a smoking ban that became effective in 1987. The number has been quoted in The Los Angeles Times and Time magazine. It comes from a survey by the Beverly Hills Restaurant Association, a group organized by a public-affairs consultant named Rudy Cole. The survey asked restaurants how much business they thought they lost during the ban; it didn't attempt to quantify those losses using any sort of objective measure. "That was not a scientific survey," Cole admits.

    A more rigorous study, this one of taxable sales at Beverly Hills restaurants, was later conducted by the accounting firm Laventhol & Horwath. It showed a more modest average drop: 6.7 percent.

    The 30 percent figure surfaced again in the city of Bellflower, a Los Angeles suburb that banned restaurant smoking from March 1991 to June 1992. Shortly after the rule took effect, restaurateurs received survey questionnaires sponsored by Restaurants for a Sensible Voluntary Policy. That group was supported by the Tobacco Institute and had Rudy Cole as its executive vice president. The survey itself was prepared by an employee of the Dolphin Group, a public-relations agency that serves Philip Morris USA.

    The Bellflower survey--again based on anecdotal responses-also reported that restaurants lost an average of about 30 percent of their customers. But a study of sales receipts commissioned by the city of Bellflower showed that restaurant revenues actually rose by 2.4 percent during the smoking ban. Stanton Glantz and Lisa Smith, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, studied sales data in 13 communities that had banned restaurant smoking-.-including Bellflower and Beverly Hills. They found no significant longterm drop anywhere.

    Pro-tobacco forces circulated the Bellflower survey in California towns considering antismoking rules. One version said the survey was sponsored by the California Business and Restaurant Alliance. It didn't mention that the alliance is run by an executive of the Dolphin Group, Philip Morris' PR firm. The statistic gained even wider currency when the Tobacco Institute cited the Beverly Hills survey in ads run in restaurant-industry publications, urging restaurateurs to fight smoking bans.

    A star is born

    An informal survey of restaurateurs in Bellflower, Calif., (top) became a formal report showing the alleged economic impact of a smoking ban. Both were sponsored by groups connected to the tobacco industry. One version of the report (middle) suggested-incorrectly-that it was commissioned by the city's mayor, Survey statistics were reported as news in Bellflower (bottom) and other California towns considering smoking bans.


    REFERENCES

    1. Cig Ban Leaves Lot Of 'Empties'
    Source: New York Post
    Date: May 12, 2003
    Author: Jeane MacIntosh
    URL: http://www.nypost.com/news/regionalnews/75483.htm

    2. 1870 Bar May Get $nuffed Out
    Source: New York Post
    Date: May 12, 2003
    Author: Jeane MacIntosh
    URL: http://www.nypost.com/news/regionalnews/75492.htm

    3. Bars And Restaurants Blame Sharp Drop In Business On Smoking Ban
    Source: AP
    Date: May 12, 2003
    URL: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/local/ny-bc-ny--smokingban-nyc0512may12,0,3930062.story?coll=sfla-business-headlines

    4. Media Notes: How Many Votes Is A Picture Worth?
    Source: The Washington Post
    Date: May 13, 2003
    Author: Howard Kurtz
    URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A44367-2003May12.html

    5. Snuffing business 
    Source: Waterbury (CT) Republican-American
    Date: May 15, 2003
    URL: http://classifieds.rep-am.com/webarchive/editorials/5rzp.htm

    6. Bars To Close Under Smoke-free Law
    Source: nzoom.com (TVNZ)
    Date: May 18, 2003
    URL: http://onenews.nzoom.com/onenews_detail/0,1227,190979-1-7,00.html

    7. 2nd Study Confirms 2nd Hand Smoke Harmless
    Source: Rush Limbaugh Site
    Date: May 16, 2003
    URL: http://rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_051603/content/cutting_edge.guest.html

    8. Smoke Screens 
    Source: New York Post
    Date: May 24, 2003
    Author: Stephanie Gaskell and Dareh Gregorian

    9. Smoking Ban Ignites Passions
    Source: CNN
    Date: March 31, 2003
    URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/03/31/biz.trav.smoking/

    10. New York City Department of Health
    Date: June 11, 2003

    11. Where There's Smoke
    Source: Consumer Reports
    Date: May 1994

    12. The Great 1995 New York Smoke-Out Smoke Screen
    Source: THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
    Date: MAY 29. 1995
    URL: http://www.nypost.com/news/regionalnews/76479.htm

    13. Ban Draws Fire at Eateries
    Source: New York Daily News
    Date: April 11, 1995
    Author: Mark Mooney and Corky Siemaszko

    14. Smoke Proof 1
    Source: Philip Morris document
    Date: April 12, 1995
    Author: Ellen Merlo
    URL: http://tobaccodocuments.org/pm/2043356155-6157.html

    15. Our Troops Fight For Freedom While Our Pols Restrict It
    Source: New York Post
    Date: March 31, 2003
    Author: Steve Dunleavy
    URL: http://www.nypost.com/commentary/72314.htm

    16. Resentment Smolders As Smoking Ban Takes Hold
    Source: Irish Echo
    Date: April 4, 2003
    Author: Stephen McKinley
    URL: http://www.irishecho.com/newspaper/story.cfm?id=13048


    16.5. Before you ban smoking in our restaurants, please listen to what we have to say.
    Sources: New York TImes, New York Post
    Date: November 23, 1994

    17 Eatery owners fume as $$ go up in smoke ban
    Source: New York Post
    Date: May 10, 1995
    Author: Linda Massarell and Julia Lime (Sp?)
    URL: http://tobaccodocuments.org/pm/2050155616-5651.html

    18. New York Post Editorials
    Source: Tobacco.org
    Date: Downloaded May 24, 2003
    URL: http://www.tobacco.org/articles.php?media_id=1003&pattern=editorial

    19. Bloomberg's Butt Ban 
    Source: New York Post
    Date: August 10, 2002
    URL: http://nypost.com/postopinion/editorial/20423.htm

    20. Philip Morris Website
    Date: Downloaded May 24, 2003
    URL: http://www.altria.com/investors/annual_report/board/board01.asp?flash=true

    21. "Tobacco Industry Political Influence and Tobacco Policy Making in New York 1983-1999"
    Source: Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. Tobacco Control Policy Making: United States.
    Date: February 1, 2000.
    URL: http://repositories.cdlib.org/ctcre/tcpmus/NY2000

    21b. Analysis of taxable sales receipts: was New York City's Smoke-Free Air Act bad for restaurant business?
    Source: J Public Health Manage Pract 1999;5:14-21.
    Author: Hyland A, Cummings KM, Nauenberg E.
    URL: http://www.tobaccoscam.ucsf.edu/pdf/9.2-Hyland-NewYorkSales.pdf



    22. New York’s Smoke-free Regulations: Effects on Employment and Sales in the Hospitality Industry
    Source: Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly
    Date: JUNE 2003
    Author: ANDREW HYLAND, VANAJA PULI, MICHAEL CUMMINGS, AND RUSS SCIANDRA
    URL: http://www.hotelschool.cornell.edu/publications/hraq/feature/pdf/nysmokefree.pdf


    23. Latest poll finds majority of people would prefer smoke-free restaurants 
    Source: KUSA-TV Channel 9
    Date: June 16, 2003
    Author: Medical Reporter Dr. Stephanie Clements, and Web Producer Paola Farer
    URL: http://www.9news.com/storyfull-newsroom.asp?id=15419

    24. A smoking ban in N.J. bars? Butt out, say owners 
    Source: Asbury Park (NJ) Press
    Date: June 14, 2003
    http://www.app.com/app2001/story/0,21133,750956,00.html

    25. Smokers Still Holding Court
    Source: Greensboro (NC) News & Record
    Date: June 13, 2003
    Author: Sue Schultz
    URL: http://www.news-record.com/news/local/hp/smoke13.htm

    26. A Good Idea Lost To Simple Politics
    Source: Montreal Gazette (ca)
    Date: June 11, 2003
    Author: Mike Boone
    URL: http://www.canada.com/montreal/montrealgazette/columnists/story.asp?id=88222E4D-788B-4DCF-8327-89C2FC94B36D

    27. Secondhand smoke stirs debate 
    Source: Vineland (NJ) Daily Journal
    Date: June 23, 2003
    Author: Lisa Grzyboski

    28. New York Tobacco Debate Still Smoldering With Few Satisfied
    Source: CNSNews
    Date: June 23, 2003
    Author: Jeff McKay / CNSNews.com Correspondent
    URL: http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewCulture.asp?Page=/Culture/archive/200306/CUL20030623a.html

    29. US smoking policy based on hypocrisy 
    Source: Irish Examiner (ie)
    Date: July 1, 2003
    Author: Michael O'Neill-Mockler
    URL: http://www.examiner.ie/pport/web/opinion/Full_Story/did-sg1s8tPMVFGUI.asp

    30. Briefing: smoking bans on the increase 
    Source: Times Of London (uk)
    Date: July 3, 2003
    Author: Richard Colwill
    URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,343-733888,00.html

    31. No smoke without ire 
    Source: The Scotsman
    Date: July 6, 2003
    Author: Dani Garavelli and Campbell Spencer
    Primary Category: Smokefree Policies
    URL: http://news.scotsman.com/columnists.cfm?id=736022003

    32. Jobs Warning Over Smoking Ban
    Source: RTÉ Online [Radio Telefís Éireann] (ie)
    Date: July 22, 2003
    URL: http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/0722/smoking.html

    33. Smoking ban 'could cost 65,000 jobs' 
    Source: Belfast Telegraph (uk)
    Date: July 22, 2003
    Author: Gene McKenna
    URL: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/story.jsp?story=426652