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Smoke-free Wisconsin?

When Ready Randy's Sports Bar & Grill opened in rural New Richmond more than a year ago, owner Randy Calleja posted the facility as a smoke-free establishment.

The new business was one of the few eating establishments in the state to voluntarily ban smoking inside, Calleja reported. Smokers were invited to light up on several outdoor patios.

"Eventually it's (a smoking ban) going to be coming," he said in an article in the New Richmond News in September 2006. "We thought we'd get ahead of it."

That time may be here soon.

On Monday, Ready Randy's served as the backdrop for supporters of a state-wide smoking ban, which is currently being debated in the Wisconsin Legislature.

The state bill originally called for the ban to take effect on Jan. 1, 2009. Some legislative leaders are attempting to amend the proposal, in an effort to delay the ban's implementation until 2010 and to exempt certain establishments from the ban.

The measure is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. Gov. Jim Doyle supports the smoking ban.

State Senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls), who previously opposed such a ban, was on hand at Monday's rally to voice her support for the plan.

Harsdorf, speaking to about 20 people attending the American Cancer Society's brief Smoke-Free Rally, said she was initially opposed to such a sweeping ban, favoring local control efforts to deal with smoke-free environments.

Harsdorf said she was also uneasy with the idea of mandating smoking bans inside private businesses.

But the growing research on the health impact of second-hand smoke and the societal costs associated with smoking-related diseases have tipped the scales in favor of government action, Harsdorf said.

"I've given this a lot of thought over the years," she said. "I'm getting more and more people coming up saying they want to go the smoke-free route. It's a health issue. It doesn't just affect the person smoking."

Harsdorf said she hopes the state will institute an across-the-board ban, with no exceptions, so there will be a "level playing field" for all bars and eating establishments.

Tavern League officials say a uniform ban is impossible, because casinos cannot be included in any state effort. Casinos are on Native American land, which exempt them from state regulations, so they would hold a competitive advantage over non-smoking establishments, they claim.

Still, Harsdorf said, the facts are too daunting to ignore.

Second-hand smoke can cause cancer and other health problems among workers and customers at bars and restaurants, she noted.

"We want to encourage healthy environments," she said.

Smoking costs the nation about $167 billion annually, she estimated.

"Those numbers reach into every one of our lives, whether we smoke or not," she said.

For every smoker who quits, Wisconsin state government will save $1,600 a year in reduced medical costs among those on medical assistance.

Even with the mounting evidence that smoking is a serious health concern, Harsdorf told those attending Monday's rally that there is no guarantee that a ban will pass.

"It really is in limbo right now," she said.

But smoking ban proponents say the tide is turning toward state action, and it's more a matter of when, not if, a ban will pass.

Liz Sanger, a legal policy specialist with the Smoke-Free Wisconsin organization, said Tavern League officials have been attending similar rallies across the state to voice their objections to the ban.

"They're feeling the heat," she said. "They think it's going to happen. It really shows that the momentum continues to grow in our favor."

Calleja said he understands the concern among fellow bar and restaurant owners that a ban will cost them business over time.

He said the negative impact of going smoke-free is overblown.

"It's been a success for us," he said. "Even the smokers who come in say they can last for a dinner."

The Breathe Free Wisconsin Act would end smoking in all public workplaces, including bars and restaurants. It's been approved by the State Senate Health Committee.

Already 22 states, including Minnesota and Illinois, have instituted comprehensive smoke-free laws.

St. Croix County's Health and Human Services Board is jumping on the smoke-free bandwagon this week as well.

At its Wednesday, Jan. 30, meeting, several agenda items seek to strengthen the county's existing smoke-free policies.