WisBusiness: Efforts to Toughen Smoking Ban Burn Tavern Advocates

By Robert Chappell
For WisBusiness.com

Madison Ald. Steve Holtzman’s proposed across-the-board ban on smoking in restaurants and taverns could make Madison the most smoke-free city in the state and “act as a model” for other Wisconsin cities and even the state itself, but opponents call it an unenforceable edict that could drive customers to the Madison suburbs and beyond.

The proposal would make Madison the first city in Wisconsin with a complete ban on smoking in taverns and restaurants, and the 119th such municipality nationwide, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.

Currently, Janesville’s ordinance bans smoking in businesses with less than 50 percent of sales from alcohol, like the current Madison regulation. But it’s enforced, unlike Madison’s, which doesn’t take effect until January 2006.

Maureen Busalacchi of Smoke Free Wisconsin would like to see Madison’s ban enforced immediately.

“What are they afraid of (in Madison)?” she asked. “Rip the Band-Aid off.”

Oshkosh voters will decide in an April 6 referendum whether to ban smoking in businesses with less than 70 percent of sales coming from alcohol.

Busalacchi added that even the proposed total ban is in line with what’s happening nationwide.

“What they’re proposing in Madison isn’t radical,” she said. “It’s sweeping the nation. And once people experience it, they never go back.”

Wisconsin Tavern League spokesman Scott Stenger said the change represents bad faith on the part of city government in Madison.

“We feel like we’ve been duped,” he said. “We sat down with the leaders of the council and (former) Mayor (Sue) Bauman. We came up with a proposal that we think works. It passed and was signed and two years later we’re back at it again, when we were told we wouldn’t be.”

Holtzman noted that several states, including California, New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Delaware, have banned smoking entirely in most public places. Even whole nations – notably New Zealand and Ireland, “the country that practically invented smoking in pubs,” as Holtzman described it – have enacted similar bans.

Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (http://www.no-smoke.org) lists 118 governmental units in the U.S. – including cities, counties and states – that currently ban smoking in all taverns. It lists 281 that have 100 percent smoking bans of some kind, either for workplaces, restaurants, bars, or all three.

The university system is feeling the trend, as well. A bill passed the state Assembly on Wednesday which would ban smoking in all University of Wisconsin residence halls statewide.

Holtzman would like to see a ban on smoking in all restaurants and taverns in Wisconsin. He said the benefits for public health would be immediate, and that the restaurant industry has said it wants a “level playing field” statewide.

But, he said, “The state has essentially abandoned its responsibility on this issue.”

The current ordinance was passed by the Madison Common Council in November 2002 and amended in February 2003, after negotiations with restaurant and tavern industry representatives.

The current regulation depends on percentage of alcohol sales to determine an establishment’s schedule for phasing out smoking. Businesses reporting less than 33 percent of revenue from alcohol sales would become smoke-free in January, 2005, and businesses reporting 33 to 50 percent of sales from alcohol would have another year to ban smoking. Businesses reporting more than 50 percent of sales from alcohol are legally considered taverns, and can therefore allow smoking, but must limit their customers to people over 21 years of age.

Holtzman calls his current proposal a “correction” to the current ordinance. It would eliminate the reporting of alcohol sales percentages by simply banning smoking in virtually all restaurants and bars. Holtzman said the self-reporting of sales percentages just doesn’t work.

“They’ll come one week and report 52 percent, and then come back the next week and report 48 percent,” he said. “The percentages are just impossible to deal with.”

Holtzman’s proposal comes in response to a Feb. 25 memo from City Attorney James Voss detailing “dramatic inconsistencies” in the current ordinance and the need to correct those inconsistencies. Holtzman’s proposal is scheduled to come before the Common Council for a vote on March 16.

See the memo: http://www.wisbusiness.com/1008/large/0402SmokingMemo.pdf

“What is the difference between an establishment reporting 45 percent and one reporting 55 percent? There’s no discernable difference to the public,” the city councilman said.

“It defies comprehension,” he said of the current system. “It defies enforcement. Ideally we don’t want to have enforcement. We don’t want to be heavy-handed,” he added. He said self-enforcement requires a much simpler set of rules – preferably a set of rules that applies statewide.

The Wisconsin Tavern League agrees with Holtzman on the need for a statewide standard, but that’s about all they agree on.

“The biggest key is uniformity,” said Tavern League spokesman Stenger. “What we would like to see is a statewide standard.” He added that taverns in Monona, Cottage Grove and other outlying communities might actually be in favor of Madison’s total ban, because suburban bars might see a boost in business.

But even a statewide standard shouldn’t include a total ban on smoking, Stenger said.

“The outright ban we think is just not workable,” he said. “People that don’t like loud music don’t go into bars with loud music. We don’t pass an ordinance to ban loud music.”