Starbucks' 25-Foot Ban Of Smoking Isn't Quite What It Seems

There were reports galore this week that Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) was banning smoking within 25 feet of its stores. But like many of these incidents, that's not quite the case. First, it's only company-owned stores and it excludes any that are housed within another retailer (such as Starbucks within grocery stores, Target or airports). More critically, it also applies only to those Starbucks stores that happen to own all of the land that is 25 feet beyond the store. That last one excludes a lot of Starbucks. Not that Starbucks officials were going out of their way to point out these limits. If these misperceptions encourage coffee drinkers to not light up near a Starbucks, Starbucks—and many of its customers—will be quite happy.

But even when a store does happen to own 25 feet of land around its perimeter, this is going to be a really tricky—OK, pretty much impossible—rule to enforce. If someone is walking past a Starbucks and they happen to be smoking, who is going to stop them? What if they stop for a moment to light up? What if they stop for five minutes? That's the legal problem. If a government ordinance banned this conduct—and many do—then police can enforce the rules.

It's difficult to see the authority that a barista would have for enforcing conduct outside the store. Complain of loitering? First, that's a police matter and this is a Starbucks rule—not a law. Besides, in an outside seating area, it's hard to enforce a loitering rule with a straight face. (Note: Starbucks told The Wall Street Journal that its intention is to prohibit smoking in its outdoor seating areas, where state or local laws would otherwise allow it. That's another limit of the intended rule.)

There is the obvious issue of this angering smokers, who were already unhappy with having to smoke outside in the cold or the rain. Clearly, Starbucks has already made the calculation that happiness with non-smokers would far outweigh unhappiness of smokers.

Having said all that, there is a legitimate reason for this. There are many people that are allergic to cigarette smoke and who simply don't want to be exposed to it. If the entrance to a Starbucks is covered with smoke, that will actively discourage some people from entering. When smokers outside an entrance drive away customers and revenue, it's hard to argue that the store doesn't have the right to act and defend itself. And as long as they own the land, they have a shot of enforcing the rule. That should work well, until an attorney who smokes visits the municipal building to check out exactly where the Starbucks' boundary ends.

For more:

- See The Wall Street Journal story
- See The AdWeek story

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