• Many Have Seen The Light On Smoking Ban
  • Two years ago Judi Malone was a strong opponent of a proposed statewide workplace smoking cigarettes ban.

    As the then-owner of Tailgates tavern in Eau Claire and Happy Hollow tavern in Altoona, she had seen the bottom-line impact of the smoking cigarettes ban imposed by the city of Eau Claire in July 2008. Tailgates was struggling, and Happy Hollow was booming as smoking cigarettes patrons flocked to bars outside of Eau Claire that still allowed smoking cigarettes.

    Malone's fear was that a statewide ban simply would snuff out revenues for all taverns.

    But a lot has changed since the statewide ban took effect July 5, 2010.

    "Everything is so much better now," Malone said last week as she pondered the smoke-free law's impact after a year.

    While she acknowledged losing some business from smokers, Malone said Happy Hollow retained many of those customers by building a three-season smoking cigarettes porch and has seen an increase in nonsmokers bellying up to the bar.

    "Sales have been steady, even in the tough economy," said Malone, who sold Tailgates in November and is enjoying her newly smoke-free work environment at Happy Hollow.

    That positive reaction, of course, isn't universal.

    Though some Eau Claire tavern owners had hoped a statewide ban, by leveling the playing field, would boost business by prompting customers who had opted for smoking cigarettes bars outside the city limits to return, Eau Claire City-County Tavern League President Sally Jo Birtzer said that hasn't happened.

    "People are creatures of habit, and once they get used to going someplace, it's hard to get them to change their ways," said Birtzer, who previously managed Wagner's Lanes in Eau Claire.

    Bartender Jamie Sweeney at Big T's Saloon at 2007 Third St. in Eau Claire reported that business dropped after the citywide ban and didn't really rebound after the statewide ban.

    "In the wintertime, you really see a reduction in business because nobody wants to go outside," Sweeney said, noting that the bar has an outdoor area in back where customers can smoke cigarettes and drink.

    Mixed reaction

    Big T's regular Josh Buchholz of Eau Claire, one of several patrons taking a smoking cigarettes break on the sidewalk outside the front door on a recent sunny evening, said the ban tends to make him shorten his stays because of the inconvenience of going outside to smoke.

    "At home I can smoke cigarettes when and where I want," Buchholz said.

    He still opposes the ban on the grounds that business owners should be able to allow a legal product in their establishments if they choose.

    Chuck Jordan of Eau Claire, on the other hand, was thrilled when the smoke-free law passed. To play in the local tavern pool league, he for years had to endure breathing other people's secondhand smoke cigarettes all evening and having his clothes reek like smoke.

    "I would walk in the door, take off my clothes and go directly to the washing machine," said Jordan, whose wife accompanies him to Happy Hollow occasionally now after years of refusing on account of the smoke. "I think the nonsmoking cigarettes law is long overdue and much appreciated."

    The statewide smoking cigarettes ban applied to all workplaces, but the primary resistance came from tavern owners because of the large number of people who like to light up while they drink.

    Health concerns

    It's important to remember the primary reason for passing the ban was to improve the health of Wisconsin residents by reducing their exposure to secondhand smoke, which studies have shown can increase the risk of cancer, said Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of the advocacy group SmokeFree Wisconsin.

    Sadly, those concerns recently hit home for Malone. She was a longtime social smoker until three months ago, when her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Malone kicked the habit that day.

    "Having a smoke-free work environment has definitely made it easier for me to continue to be smoke-free," Malone said.

    In addition to reducing her personal temptation to light up, the smoke-free law also results in a healthier workplace, Malone said, noting that she is grateful one of her employees, who is pregnant, won't have to give up her job for the health of her baby.

    "I am very happy that the health of my employees is not going to be put at risk just because they work at the Happy Hollow," Malone said.

    Public support

    Consumers, generally, are pleased with the law, according to a new survey commissioned by SmokeFree Wisconsin, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.

    The study, released Thursday, indicated that 75 percent of state residents support or strongly support the law, up from 69 percent in 2008 when the Legislature was debating the issue. Sixty-four percent of the 500 voters surveyed indicated the law made going out to bars and restaurants more enjoyable, while 91 percent said they go out to eat and drink the same or more often now that the state is smoke-free.

    "It's clear most people wouldn't want to go back," Busalacchi said. "It's a good thing for business, and it's a great thing for employee health."

    Gov. Scott Walker is a prominent former opponent who apparently has changed his mind, making it unlikely Republicans will try to undo the law passed by legislative Democrats.

    "Although I did not support the original smoking cigarettes ban, after listening to people across the state, it is clear to me that it works. Therefore I will not support a repeal," Walker said in a statement.

    John Mogensen, who owns several Eau Claire bars and restaurants, said the local ban didn't have much effect on his establishments because food is emphasized at most of them, but he has heard from owners of several taverns that rely heavily on bar business that their sales dropped precipitously.

    He is philosophically opposed to government telling people what to do with their businesses but acknowledged he likely wouldn't allow smoking cigarettes in any of his facilities even if the ban were overturned.

    "Most restaurants are used to it, and people like it," Mogensen said.

    Adapting to new rules

    Brad Windeshausen, owner of Whiskeys Grill and Bar in Altoona, called the statewide smoking cigarettes ban a double-edged sword.

    While it caused a decline in the establishment's bar business, it has prompted Windeshausen to make some positive changes, including putting more emphasis on serving food and attracting a broader spectrum of patrons.

    "We're in the middle of a full reinvention of the business," he said. "The bar business is changing, and we're changing with it."

    Perhaps the most visible change, beyond changing the name from Whiskey Dicks, was the large outdoor area Windeshausen built at the business in anticipation of the law. The addition, where smoking cigarettes is allowed, includes a tiki bar, pool tables, volleyball courts, dart boards, TVs and even waterfalls.

    "When people were able to smoke cigarettes here, I didn't have my kids come in, but now they come in all the time," he said. "Looking back, it was one of the greatest days of my life and my employees' lives when the smoking cigarettes ban went into effect."

    Both Windeshausen and Malone said their taverns attract more business people for lunch now that they don't have to worry about smelling like smoke cigarettes when they return to the office.

    With many customers happy about the clear inside air and smokers adjusting to the places they are allowed to smoke, Malone said she believes the state has found "a happy medium" after the contentious fight leading to the law's passage.

    "I think we've made it through the worst of the storm with the nonsmoking cigarettes law," Malone said. "I really think the bars have all adjusted, and the ones that are making it are going to make it for the long haul."