Second front-page story this week!
… since I’m probably part of the last generation of journalists who will know or care what that means, feel I must brag just a little bit. :)
By Alison Bauter
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin’s workplace smoking ban turned 2 years old Thursday, and despite critics’ fears, overall sales in the hospitality industry are up slightly.
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s Pete Hanson said Wisconsin taverns and eateries followed national economic trends and largely were unaffected by the ban.
“It wasn’t a boon to our industry, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt our sales,” said Hanson, the association’s director of public affairs.
Based on state tax collection data, Hanson said restaurant and tavern sales overall increased 1% in 2010 and 2% in 2011, mirroring national trends. Conversely, the subcategory of bars and taverns saw around a 4% decrease during that time, but Hanson notes that trend has been ongoing for many years.
“You can’t really attribute it to the smoking ban because there’s a long-term trend there,” he said.
Overall, Hanson said the smoking ban “has been positive for the restaurant industry. It’s been great for the health of our employees and customers.”
The statewide ban on smoking in public places and workplaces took effect July 5, 2010, prohibiting smoking in state or local government buildings, taverns, restaurants, stores, hotels, day care centers, state institutions, college residence halls, hospitals and more.
Critics, particularly those in the tavern industry, saw the ban as an unnecessary intrusion on private business that would deter customers who want to smoke. Supporters said the law protected the health of both customers and workers, such as bartenders, who would otherwise be exposed to secondhand smoke. Moreover, proponents said, the ban would bring more business into restaurants and bars that asthmatics and other nonsmokers previously avoided.
Although Pete Madland, executive director for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, agrees that public sentiment favors the ban, he’s still concerned that it contributed to the group’s declining membership.
“Our membership is down about 250 over the last two years, and we attribute a lot of that to places that have just gone out of business,” Madland said.
Madland said it’s not just the smoking ban (after all, it took effect in the midst of a recession), but the law was definitely “a contributing factor” to many bars closing their doors.
Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of SmokeFree Wisconsin, disputed that as anecdotal.
“The economic numbers don’t match that,” she countered.
For taverns frequented by smokers, such as Beaver Dam’s Dockside Pub and Grille, the best recourse has been to compromise by building so-called smoking rooms, attached open-air shelters for smokers’ use.
“It helps me a lot in the winter,” said Dockside owner Kathy Martin. “But, unfortunately, not everyone (has the space to) do that.”
Not only are smoking spaces such as Martin’s physically untenable for many bars, they can prove tricky from a legal standpoint. Under the law, an enclosed area where smoking is prohibited is defined as a space with a roof and at least three “substantial walls.” But there has been debate over what constitutes a substantial wall.
In April 2011, Martin herself received complaints but was not fined for her smoking area.
Overall, compliance with the law has been high, with only 1% of businesses statewide receiving complaints, according to the state Department of Health Services.
Martin, also president of the Dodge County Tavern League, said despite the smoking area, her business has taken a 30% hit.
“People were used to coming in, sitting at the bar, and having a drink and a cigarette,” Martin said, adding that nowadays, “people don’t stay.”
But Busalacchi said it is almost impossible to quantify why customers stop coming, especially in difficult economic times.
When the Legislature reconvenes this spring, Martin said the Tavern League hopes to pursue legislation to permit indoor smoking areas closed off from the rest of the bar, allowing owners to “please both groups – both smokers and nonsmokers.”
“It will never go back to being able to smoke in the bar,” Martin said, “but we’re hoping for changes in the law that will make things a lot easier on the industry.”
Busalacchi said SmokeFree Wisconsin would oppose any legislation of that nature.
“You start messing around with partially enclosed or that kind of thing, and you end up contaminating all of the air,” she said.
SmokeFree Wisconsin will push the Legislature to look at the small, flavored cigars sold cheaply at many gas stations and convenience stores that Busalacchi said target young people and encourage them to smoke.
The group also is working to limit smoking in public venues on tribal lands statewide, including casinos.