Ted Bobrow

Up in smoke

By - May 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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When Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York following 9/11, there was concern that the terrorist attack would harm the city’s economy. Bloomberg and the New York City Council, with help from the state and federal governments, enacted a wide variety of tax incentives and other programs designed to support businesses and save jobs.

But Mayor Bloomberg also pursued another policy that some regarded as anti-business. Bloomberg was relentless in his support of a ban on smoking in all public areas and workplaces including restaurants and bars.

This was just plain common sense, Bloomberg, a Republican, said. The evidence was overwhelming that secondhand smoke is a public health hazard and one of government’s key functions was protecting the health of its citizens.

Despite the objections of some business owners who feared customers would stop frequenting restaurants and bars if they could no longer smoke, the policy passed and the impact on the hospitality industry has been negligible.

Few businesses closed, net revenue grew and the policy has been replicated in many other places. The entire state of New York soon followed the city’s lead and other states including California, Connecticut and Georgia and cities ranging from Chicago, Madison and Appleton have gone smoke-free. Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Spain and New Zealand are among the countries that have enacted smoke-free workplace legislation nationwide.

The war at home

If we shift our lens to Milwaukee we see a different picture. Early in the administration of Mayor Tom Barrett, his newly appointed health commissioner, Bevan Baker, was quoted in an article on the proliferation of smoking bans in support of them.

Unfortunately, he made the mistake of saying what he believed before checking with his boss. Barrett distanced himself from Baker’s position and dropped the hot potato into the lap of the Common Council.

The Mayor stated that he would sign a bill banning smoking in workplaces if the council passed it, but he felt a ban probably should include an exemption for bars and taverns, where people expect to be able to smoke.

When Alderman Joe Davis introduced a comprehensive workplace smoking ban for Milwaukee, he urged his colleagues to support it as a public health imperative. The proposal was assigned to the council’s Public Safety Committee, chaired by Ald. Bob Donovan, a smoker and outspoken opponent of restrictions on tobacco use.

The hearing attracted hundreds of people who spoke passionately on both sides. It got off to a contentious start when Donovan restricted Davis to the same three-minute limit placed on all members of the public who wished to speak. Davis objected that the customary practice was to permit a bill’s sponsor to speak at greater length, but Donovan stuck to his guns and Davis left angrily.

Health advocates, students, people with asthma and other chronic conditions were among the bill’s supporters while bar and tavern owners and their customers argued passage would drive customers to establishments in West Allis, Cudahy, South Milwaukee and other communities.

Donovan’s committee eventually tabled the proposed ordinance without a vote, though it did not appear that there would have been enough votes to pass it. The Common Council wouldn’t act because they felt that only a statewide ban would hold city businesses harmless, and there appeared to be no momentum for the Republican-controlled General Assembly to push for such a new regulation.

The stalemate was broken this past January, following last fall’s election when Governor Doyle won convincingly and the Senate was returned to Democratic control. A newly-invigorated Doyle proposed a statewide anti-smoking initiative including a ban on smoking in all public buildings and workplaces including bars and restaurants, a $1.25 per pack increase in the tobacco tax and the expansion of cessation programs to help smokers quit.

According to Doyle, “despite our progress over the last few years, too many of our kids are still lighting up, too many lives are being cut short, and the cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses in Wisconsin alone has swelled into the billions.”

One element of the debate appears to be over. Nobody maintains any longer that cigarettes, tobacco and secondhand smoke have not been proven to pose serious harmful effects to health.

According to the 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, there is “no risk-free exposure to secondhand smoke.” The report concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer, coronary heart disease and premature death.

An editorial by Mark D. Eisner in the Journal of the American Medical Association last October stated “legislation that eliminates public smoking will therefore reduce the burden of chronic disease and premature mortality. The workplace, which is a major source of secondhand smoke exposure, is a particularly important target for preventive strategies.”

Whose rights are they, anyway?

Visit any bar in Milwaukee where smoking is permitted and you are likely to hear a range of opinion on the proposed smoking ban. A recent Saturday evening at Hooligan’s at North and Prospect was no exception.

Joe Roamer, a 42-year-old Milwaukee software salesman, is a non-smoker who says he hates the smell of smoke but he is “very, very leery” of the proposed ban.

“As a conservative, I see it as another example of government dictating to businesses something that should be left to the marketplace,” said Roamer.

A short time later, Angie Miller, 31, didn’t stop smoking her cigarette as she endorsed the ban.

“I totally support it. I only smoke when I drink and I have no trouble with having the option taken away from me.”

Miller works as a waitress and didn’t think it was right for restaurant workers to be exposed to other people’s smoke. If customers wish to light up, she said, they could go outside. Miller told of a pregnant waitress who by necessity kept working despite the obvious harm secondhand smoke posed for her child.

Sitting at the bar at Hooligan’s with his pack of cigarettes in front of him, Kevin Thames of Milwaukee, 32, said he did not support a smoking ban. “Bartenders know they will come in contact with people who smoke, so why ban it?”

As for factories and offices, Thames said it should be left to the discretion of the employers, though he felt companies should restrict smokers to designated areas as a courtesy to nonsmoking employees.

About eight feet away, Chicago resident Darrell Milsap, 40, said “I think they should ban smoking everywhere. Bars, restaurants, casinos – it’s proven it’ll kill you, so why not ban it?”

Milsap sat with a friend from Milwaukee who agreed with the ban but didn’t want to his name to be used because he worked for an investment firm with connections to tobacco companies.

“I’m totally against (smoking),” he said. “It makes people sick and raises health care costs.” His firm, he said, discourages smoking by charging employees more for health insurance if they smoke.

The People vs. Big Tobacco?

Doyle’s proposals now go before the legislature; the tax increase and expansion of treatment programs are included in his proposed budget while the ban will be considered in separate legislation.

Public support for the ban appears to be significant. A statewide survey of Wisconsin registered voters, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, The Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids and SmokeFree Wisconsin, found that 64 percent favor a statewide smoke-free law that includes bars and restaurants.

And, remarkably, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s board voted 36-1 in favor of a statewide workplace smoking ban that does not exempt bars or bar areas in restaurants. The WRA stated that a statewide ban was preferable to a patchwork of local ordinances that puts hundreds of restaurants at an unfair disadvantage.

According to WRA President Ed Lump, “the Board of Directors struggled with this issue but ultimately decided that a statewide ban was going to be the best option for the foodservice industry in Wisconsin.”

Nevertheless, the fate of Gov. Doyle’s anti-smoking initiative remains in doubt and the Milwaukee delegation will play a pivotal role. Senators Carpenter, Coggs, Darling and Richards are among those expected to support the proposals, but others like Senator Lena Taylor are publicly undecided.

While opponents play the populist card, arguing that tobacco is legal and bans are excessive intrusions into the rights of business owners and smokers, many ban advocates see the fingerprints of large businesses such as Phillip Morris, which still owns a large chunk of Miller Brewery, where smoking continues to be acceptable, and Potawotami Bingo and Casino.

These businesses employ large numbers of area residents, make major contributions to local politicians and also spend a great deal of money on local charitable activities.

Patricia McManus, executive director of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, which is also spearheading the Smoke Free Milwaukee Initiative, doesn’t hide her outrage at the impact tobacco has on the African-American community.

“Like everywhere, tobacco is a leading cause of death and disease” in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin and in communities of color, according to Dr. McManus. “It’s a public health issue for smokers, it’s a public health issue for youth and it’s a public health issue for people who don’t smoke.”

When the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to expand education programs into communities of color, it was nearly impossible to find groups to partner with that didn’t have links to big tobacco.

Dr. McManus is on the board of the national Black Nurses Association and tried to get the organization to support an anti-smoking resolution but was thwarted because of support it receives from the tobacco industry.

“The tobacco industry’s reach is incredible,” she said.

On April 17, The Milwaukee Common Council voted 10 to 5 in favor of a non-binding resolution to support the statewide ban. Eighth District Alderman Bob Donovan, who chairs the council’s Public Safety committee, led the opposition, calling it an unfair intrusion in the civil rights of smokers and bar owners. Third District Alderman Mike D’Amato, whose territory includes much of the East Side’s entertainment-oriented business district, was a lead sponsor.

While the debate over the proposed tobacco ban tends to focus on bars and restaurants, it really is about the right of all employees to clean air on the job. If office and factory workers are entitled to clean air, don’t restaurant and bar workers have the same rights?

Perhaps Angie Miller, the waitress who supported the proposed ban put it best. “If I choose to hit myself in the head with a hammer, it doesn’t give me the right to hit someone else in the head.”

When summed up so succinctly, a statewide smoking ban seems less about politics than about the down-to-earth common sense Wisconsinites so proudly profess to embrace. VS

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