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Dan Schoeck (left) and Dennis Van Watermulen are pictured smoking in the Hammond Hotel's outdoor patio. Shoeck and Van Watermulen don't approve of the smoke-free law, saying the law takes away their rights.

Wisconsin state smoking ban marks first anniversary

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It's been one year since the smoke-free air law went into effect in Wisconsin.

Now that the smoke has cleared it seems a majority of Wisconsinites, including Gov. Scott Walker, support the law enacted on July 5, 2010 prohibiting smoking in the workplace.

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According to a June 16 Public Opinions Strategies poll commissioned by SmokeFree Wisconsin, the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, "75 percent of (500 likely Wisconsin) voters favor the July 2010 law that prohibits smoking in most indoor places. Not only is support for the law wide, it is also very deep with 62 percent 'strongly in favor.'"

According to the poll, 91 percent of residents say the smoking ban has made them either "more likely" to go out to restaurants and bars (45 percent) or it has not impacted their decision on going out (46 percent).

By comparison, just 9 percent indicate the law has made them "less likely" to go out.

A year ago, many bar and restaurant owners objected to the law saying it would hurt business because smokers wouldn't frequent their establishments if they weren't allowed to light up.

Geralyn Karl, health educator for St. Croix County and tobacco control specialist for public health, says the smoke-free air law benefits businesses.

"It helps business owners, people that work there and people that come there. It's a win-win. Sometimes there is a shift in patrons, but in general we have so many more people that don't smoke and who like clean air and are willing to go and spend what little money they have," she said.

Although Karl says the smoke-free law has actually helped businesses, many local bars and restaurants disagree.

The News spoke to four local bar and restaurant owners about how the smoke-free air law has impacted their business in the last 12 months; JJ's Sport's Bar, Hammond Hotel, Gibby's Lanes and McCabe's Shamrock Club.

Mary Driscoll, owner of McCabe's Shamrock Club in New Richmond, said, "It hasn't helped business. The business hasn't grown because of it, definitely not. But I don't think that it's hurt it as much as we thought that it could. It's made it a little more handicapped for people who would really like to sit and have a smoke with their cocktail."

One area in which all four businesses noted a significant loss in profits was the gambling machines, that many smoking customers used to spend hours at.

Jesse Penman, co-owner of JJ's Sports Bar and Grill in Hammond and The Outpost in Somerset, said he's noticed more families dining at his restaurants since the law was enacted.

Star Prairie resident Susan Lindberg said she's dined out more frequently since the law was enacted.

Jamie Gibson, owner of Gibby's Lanes, said he's seen a few more families at his bowling alley, but not many more than before the law took effect.

"Everybody said when the ban happened it would increase the non-smoking traffic. But that hasn't been the case," said Don Fowell, co-owner of the Hammond Hotel and Bo's 'N Mine in River Falls.

Although the bar owners don't feel the ban has helped business, they say it hasn't necessarily hurt business either, citing the recent tough economy as the main reason business is down.

In addition to the smoke-free air law, Driscoll said the poor economy, increased DUI laws and competition may all have played a part in decreased business.

Regardless of whether the smoking ban has impacted businesses financially, all four business owners say that it should be the business owner's choice whether or not they want to allow smoking in their establishment.

Fowell said, "I should have the right to choose. People have a choice to come here and they have the choice to work here."

Even those bar owners who said they supported the smoke-free air law said they would have liked the right to choose.

Karl says Wisconsinites shouldn't have to choose between their health and employment.

While some business owners and many smokers have stated they feel their rights have been taken away, Karl says, "There is no liberty or no constitutional law that gives people the right to smoke or to breathe toxins or have toxins in the air around other people. So (the law) was an opportunity to protect people from something they already had a right to."

Karl said the law isn't meant to take any power away from business owners, it's solely "to protect people from the hazards of secondhand smoke."

Regardless, the law has made an already tough business, even tougher, business owners said.

Driscoll said, "It's hard to be a mom and pop store anymore. We pay a lot of taxes. Our liquor licenses and what go with that pay a lot of taxes. You sometimes think, 'Why do they have to come inside and legislate even more.'"

All four business owners said they were glad the ban went statewide instead of by county, "At least it evened the playing field for everybody," Fowell said.

Karl said the smoke-free air law is just a sign of the times.

"All of the states around us had smoke-free air laws, so we were kind of that bad ashtray in the middle," she said.

Karl said the smoke-free air law is similar to other health-related laws dining establishments must adhere to.

It's just as fair as checking the food they prepare or the water that they drink, she claims.

"In the big picture, we're not going to stop testing someone's water to see if it's OK to drink, we're not going to stop going in and testing their food and doing health inspections on the food, so why would we not do that with the air?" she said.

Here to stay?

Karl believes the smoke-free air law is one of the greatest public health accomplishments ever, by protecting people from secondhand smoke, and she doesn't foresee the law going anywhere, she said.

Karl doesn't think the law will get repealed.

"The people of Wisconsin will not allow that to happen. If we were to vote today I believe that they would support smoke-free air still," she said.

Whether they like it or not, business owners know the ban isn't going anywhere, and the only way to move forward is to find ways to accommodate those patrons who still want to puff.

Many bars have spent several thousand dollars to accommodate their smoking clientele.

While many business owners have added small designated smoking areas outside in front of their bar, Fowell invested upwards of $50,000 on a retractable open-air outdoor patio at the Hammond Hotel, which he said he never would have done had it not been for the ban.

Driscoll said, "It would be nice had (the law) never happened, but since it's a fact, it's not as bad as we expected it might be ... It's here. It's playable. There are bigger fish to fry."

The poll has a margin of error of +/- 4.38 percent. The full poll can be viewed at http://bit.ly/1yrsmokefreepoll.

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