WisBusiness: Businesses gear up as countdown to July 5 smoking ban continues

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

Most members of the Tavern League of Wisconsin are not big fans of the statewide smoking ban at bars and restaurants that will go into effect on July 5.

The league fought long and hard against the legislation, which became law in 2009. But Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League, says the 5,000-member organization welcomes the uniformity it will bring to regulating smoking in Wisconsin eating and drinking establishments.

“Now we’ll just have to see what effect is has on tavern owners,” he says. “Many have made accommodations for smokers outside their establishments. We hope it will be a smooth transition, but there likely will be some business disruption, so there is fear among many of our members.”

Stenger says he hopes – as anti-smoking advocates predict – that non-smokers will patronize taverns in increasing numbers after July 5.

“We’ll see if that’s true,” he says. “But every jurisdiction that has passed a ban like this, whether it’s at the state, municipal or even country level as in the case of Ireland, has seen a drop in on-premise business.”

Stenger says that may doom some taverns that have been struggling during the past two years of the recession.

“It could be the final straw, so this is absolutely the wrong time for something like this,” he says. “Advocates say business will bounce back, but if you have to pay month-to-month bills, you might not be able to hang on if you are a small tavern.”

Stenger praised a bill covering a compromise over outdoor smoking rules, which was signed by Gov. Jim Doyle in part in May. It allows smokers to puff away in rooms where 25 percent or more of the walls are windows that open.

“It was helpful and important so we can accommodate smokers,” he says. “Unfortunately, not everyone can have an area like that, so it doesn’t work for all members.”

Though Stenger considers the law simple, he says there may be some dust-ups with municipalities that will end up in court.

“The law says you can’t smoke inside a bar, but that you can light up outside,” he says. “They are making this more difficult than it needs to be and making taverns jump through hoop after hoop after hoop.”

He says the league may go back to lawmakers for modifications if members feel the rules are not working for them.

Senate President Fred Risser, (D-Madison), and a co-sponsor of the smoking ban legislation, says the law is a big step forward for the state.

He says it allows smoking at the entrance to taverns, something the league wanted to preserve.

“They wanted to be darn sure that was preserved,” he says. “But cities can still ban smoking in parks and other outdoor areas.”

He also says the state regulations rule covering smoking in unenclosed areas preclude municipalities enacting tougher rules.

“It was a delicate compromise,” he says. “We’ll have to see how it works out.”

Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of Smokefree Wisconsin, says her organization is “by and large, very excited about the law. It will be a great thing for Wisconsin to have workers protected from second-hand smoke.

“The medical evidence is overwhelming in terms of why we need to do this. We look forward to a healthier population with fewer heart attacks, fewer respiratory diseases and fewer cancers.”

Busalacchi says she is not terribly disappointed with the last-minute changes to the law covering smoking in unenclosed areas.

“Law-making is often not pretty,” she says. “This particular legislation did not come out as clear and concise as it could or should have. But in general, tavern owners get what this law is supposed to do and will comply.”

She says some tavern owners have done renovations to accommodate smokers, but not a great number.

“As an investment, it may not make a lot of sense,” she says. “The smoking population is declining, so investing a lot of money into a structure where smoking may not be allowed in the future may not be a wise move.”

Busalacchi says she believes municipalities will be able to be able to continue to pass laws that could redefine the meaning of an enclosed smoking area.

“What they are pre-empted from doing is saying bar patrons can’t smoke on an outdoor patio,” she says.

She notes that Wisconsin – until July 5 – is the only Midwestern state other than Indiana that allows smoking in bars and restaurants. Michigan’s law went into effect on May 1.

Busalacchi says her group will now promote the new law so “people who don’t like smoke know they can go to taverns. If you have asthma or seasonal allergies, smoke can be a real irritation.

“Now, these folks can go play darts, have a drink, play shuffle board, hear a band and socialize with friends without damaging their health. I think this ban will be one of the best things we can do for increasing productivity and improving the health of our population.”

Busalacchi says her group will continue to battle tobacco companies.

“They are marketing candy flavored garbage (cigarettes) to kids and trying to get people to use smokeless tobacco products, which are very dangerous because they produce cancers along the digestive system and cause heart problems.”

She says she is also disappointed that the state has cut support for those who want to quit smoking.

“We still have 850,000 to 900,000 smokers and one of the highest smoking levels for pregnant women in the nation,” she says. “That’s horrible, so support for cessation efforts needs to change in the next session.”