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State lawmakers consider workplace smoking ban

The Wisconsin Legislature is apparently close to adopting a statewide public indoor smoking ban.

The measure, which would prohibit smoking in restaurants, bars, sports arenas and most other workplaces, was approved by a 5-2 vote of the Senate Health Committee and by an 11-2 vote of the Assembly Health and Healthcare Reform Committee Friday.

Both houses of the Legislature are expected to vote this week on the bill, which would take effect July 5, 2010.

Randy Calleja, owner of Ready Randy's Sports Bar & Grill, said the move isn't a surprise. Everyone in the hospitality industry expected it to happen eventually.

The ban will have no impact on Ready Randy's, as the establishment went smoke-free when it opened in 2006.

"It's the right choice for the health of the employees," Calleja said.

Even so, Calleja said he has mixed emotions now that the ban appears to be coming. His bar and restaurant has found its own niche in the market, catering to non-smokers, so that unique feature will soon be gone.

"It sounds kind of ironic," he said, "but the ban will probably have an impact on our business."

Calleja said he thinks many small bars that don't serve food will probably be hardest hit by the ban. Many patrons in those establishments often smoke, he said.

Under the terms of the proposal, those who violate the law and smoke in public places would face fines of $100 to $250. Bar owners who don't try to stop smokers would get a warning for the first offense and a $100 fine for a second offense.

"It's very obvious this was going to happen," said Rep. Kitty Rhoades, R-Hudson, who serves on the Assembly Health and Health Care Reform Committee. "While I don't believe this is the role of government, I did work to make the bill more workable for the real world."

She said she did that by supporting modifications to the bill. Those include phasing in the law, amending it to allow smoking on outdoor patios, adding a definition of "outdoor patio," allowing operation of tobacco stores and tobacco bars and requiring that community bans can't be more restrictive than the state law.

"That keeps all the communities on the same playing field," said Rhoades of that last provision.

"I think this is a positive step forward for Wisconsin," said state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls. "More and more people are looking for smoke-free environments."

That, she said, is evidenced by the fact that communities are passing their own bans on indoor smoking.

The statewide ban will make for more level playing field, said Harsdorf.

Although the provisions vary a little, 25 other states have general indoor smoking bans.

Wisconsin legislators have argued over the ban for years. The year-long delay in implementation is intended to give tavern owners and other businesses time to prepare.

The bill will not apply to Wisconsin casinos because the Indian tribes that run them are sovereign nations.

Geralyn Karl, St. Croix County tobacco control specialist and coordinator of the Pierce/St. Croix Tobacco Free Coalition, said the awareness of the impact of second-hand smoke is too serious to ignore any more.

"The scales have tipped," she said. "People have become more educated on the hazards of secondhand smoke and expect to be protected from exposure to it, at least in public places. Regulating where people can emit dangerous substances into the air that negatively impact other people's health is good public health policy."

Karl said she's disappointed that the ban will take more than a year to go into effect.

If the science is clear on the danger, she said, "it is unreasonable to delay protection."

"Delaying the date of implementation is generally a strategy used by the tobacco industry and its bedfellows to allow for mobilization of opposition to the policy; time to stir up the pot and cry 'the sky is falling, the sky is falling,' when indeed the sky is not falling, but is truly a brighter shade of blue," she said.

Karl said the biggest impact of the ban could be the shift in social norms as fewer people are seen in public smoking.

"I have never met anyone who wanted a young person to start using tobacco, except the tobacco industry," she said. "Clean indoor air laws minimize the witnessing of tobacco use by youth; making it less normal, less acceptable. Ultimately fewer young people become tobacco users. Prevention is, and always has been, the key to reducing the burden of tobacco in Wisconsin."