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Smoking law blows winds of change

People on the both sides of the issue watch closely as proposed clean-air bills circulate the state Legislature.

Many hold their breath to see if lawmakers will ban smoking and end secondhand smoke in public places.

River Falls adopted a no-smoking law in 2003. It prohibited smoking in public places with a few exceptions: Full-service bars, combination bar-restaurants with 50% of their revenues from alcohol and private rooms/banquets.

Either Senate Bill 150 or Assembly Bill 834 would eliminate smoking in those places, too. Both use similar wording: "Under this bill, designated smoking areas may no longer be permitted in any public place or place of employment with exceptions for private residences, designated rooms in lodging establishments, certain retail establishments selling tobacco, and certain retirement homes."

Both bills require property owners or managers to enforce the law and post no-smoking signs. Fines for violating the pending law range from $50-$500.

Locals react

Kinnickinnic Valley Health Foundation Director Heather Logelin points to a report produced by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) that says the Breathe Free Air Bill won't harm local economies.

It found that in cities where people already can't smoke in bars or taverns due to local ordinances, local economies are not affected. The report, "Smoke and Mirrors: Tobacco Industry Claims Unfounded," analyzed Madison and Appleton liquor-license requests since municipal bans took effect and found that they increased.

Logelin said, "Sure, some smokers are going to stop going to bars and restaurants if they can't smoke, but this loss in revenue is offset by the increased revenue from non-smokers who will start going to those same bars and restaurants because they are now smoke-free."

Logelin said she can't speak on the hospital's behalf but can say she agrees with WISPIRG.

"Everyone has the right to breathe clean air, and no one should have to choose between a paycheck and a smoke-filled work environment," she said.

Scottie McTeer manages American Pie, a smoke-free restaurant-bar on North Main Street that advertises clean air on its curb-side sign.

She said, "For us, we have a lot of people who come here because it's non-smoking."

McTeer said people often comment about how glad they are to have a smoke-free place where they can come with family. She said occasionally an oblivious smoker lights up at the bar. Then she tells them they can't. After that they usually leave.

She expresses concern that the law would be a drain on local bars. McTeer says it will be hard for some bar owners to enforce the rule and thinks people will find ways around it.

As a smoker, she doesn't agree with the law taking away a freedom, a personal choice. She doesn't smoke at work or at home but enjoys lighting up when she's out "having fun."

"America's supposed to be free, but they're taking our rights," she said.

Dan "Shooter" Suffield owns and operates Shooter's Pub on Elm Street. He wonders why the state would punish a legal activity and says "absolutely," the law would affect business.

"I personally am not a smoker, but my business...I have a lot of people who don't smoke at home, in the car or at work but come to have a few cocktails and smoke."

He said there are plenty of smoke-free options for people who prefer them. He wonders why lawmakers don't just make tobacco illegal -- period.

Suffield surmises that the huge tax revenue tobacco generates will prevent that from ever happening, but he says it's contradictory for the state to spend the tobacco money while also condemning the product producing it.

Suffield said he doesn't appreciate the law requiring business owners to implement the law: "I'm not a law enforcement agent."

He doesn't agree with banning something legal and said beyond ensuring that an owner has a license and pays taxes, government's role in private business should be limited.

Lawmakers' take

Senator for the state's 10th Senate District Sheila Harsdorf said the state's Democratic leadership will decide when the bill comes to the floor for a vote.

She's heard plenty from voters about the pending legislation.

"Both sides feel strongly and make good arguments for their side," she said. "...The whole issue comes down to creating a healthy environment."

She said business owners ask for uniformity -- one law by which all the businesses abide. Harsdorf said varying laws create disparity. To have similar businesses operate according to different standards generates inequity, she says.

The senator said for everyone looking at ways to control health costs, this (law) is it.

She said the question "What is government's role?" does enter the picture. She responds that it's to create a safe environment and address public health issues.

Harsdorf said the clean-air bill would keep all workplaces safer for consumers and employees.

Representative for the state's 30th Assembly District Kitty Rhoades said, "I support establishing uniform smoking regulations across the state. However, I have concerns about some of the restrictions contained in these proposals..."

She said last session she voted in favor of 2005 Assembly Bill (AB) 414 because she believes it was a reasonable compromise and contained "significant" steps forward by placing a ban on smoking in restaurants but not in bars.

"I am hopeful that we will be able to find a similar compromise again this legislative session," Rhoades said.

She said both the Assembly's and Senate's versions of the bill have passed out of committee and are available to be scheduled for a vote. According to Rhoades, the Legislature's 2007-2008 regular session ends Thursday.

If the Legislature doesn't agree on and pass one of the bills, both proposals will die until the next, regular session beginning in 2009.