With Democrats now in control of the Assembly and Senate in Madison, Wisconsin may soon become the 24th state to enact a state-wide smoking ban.
Support for the ban has grown in recent years as individual cities and communities have taken the lead by enacting local bans. Madison, Appleton, and Eau Claire are the state’s most notable bans.
Small businesses and the Wisconsin Tavern League are the ban’s primary opponents, according to J.R. Ross, editor of Wispolitics.com.
“This year there’s a better chance the state Assembly might bring it forward first, which would put pressure on the Senate to pass it,” Ross said. “With all the new members in the legislature this year, it’s difficult to say how each of them will shake out, so the votes aren’t counted yet.”
Garey Bies, 1st Assembly District representative, said he couldn’t say for certain how he would vote without seeing the exact language of a bill. The Sister Bay republican would hesitate to support it if there were excess regulation attached to it. However, if it were a straight vote on banning smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants, he said he would probably support it.
“The first thing I did when I bought the Carroll House was make it no-smoking,” he said, referring to the Sister Bay restaurant he owns. “But I would like it to be as unobtrusive on business as possible.”
Steve Mueller took the AC Tap smoke-free in June and said he has received a great reaction from customers.
“Originally workers said they didn’t want to go non-smoking,” he said. “Now they say they like it. They’re happy they don’t go home smelling like smoke.”
He said he doesn’t think he’s lost business because of the move. Some smoking customers he sees less often, but he’s gained new non-smokers. This year he booked Christmas parties and birthday parties he said he wouldn’t have before.
That said, however, Mueller said he’s not sure he would support a statewide ban himself.
“I don’t believe the government should tell people how to run their business,” he said. “I think there are other things they can focus on.”
Maureen Busalacchi, Executive Director of Smoke Free Wisconsin, said the adverse health effects of smoking push it beyond a business issue.
“When it comes to health and safety standards it’s up to government and regulatory agencies to step in,” she said. “Multiple studies have shown that heart attacks decrease significantly after smoking bans are enacted.”
Busalacchi said she understands why business owners don’t want to see more regulation, but she doesn’t believe claims that smoking bans severely hurt taverns and small businesses. Eau Claire taverns say they lost over $350,000 in income in the three months after a ban went into affect there, but the survey producing that figure didn’t account for other economic conditions this fall.
Bies said he’s under the impression taverns have begun to adjust to the idea, though there are some diehards against it.
“I go to the AC Tap, and people just go out the back door and have a cigarette,” he said. “As long as they don’t get into restricting how many feet from the building you have to be it’s all right.”
One might think that a restaurant with primarily outdoor seating would not be affected by smoking, but Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Grill in Sister Bay decided to go non-smoking before last season.
Owner Greg “Fuzzy” Sunstrom said his restaurant had as many if not more problems with smoke than others.
“Wind off the water changes direction a lot, so if you have one person smoking the smoke will blow in one direction for a while, then later it will be in another customer’s face,” he said.
Cigarette butts were also a problem.
“Because they’re outside, people think they can just toss their butts on the grounds and not use the ash trays,” Sunstrom said. “It was one person’s job every single morning to go around and pick up cigarette butts.”
Sunstrom supports a ban, and said it could help put all restaurants on a level playing field.
Mueller, a non-smoker who’s worked alongside smokers all his life, has one other beef. “I never got a smoke break, never got to step off the line to smoke while everyone else worked.”