Kevin Mueller

A breath of fresh air

By - Jul 5th, 2010 04:00 am
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Photo by Brian Jacobson

Like it or not, Wisconsin’s statewide smoking ban takes effect today. No more lighting up at the bar or anywhere inside a public place anymore. No more breathing in wafts of second-hand smoke.

Maureen Busalacchi couldn’t be happier. She’s the executive director at Smoke Free Wisconsin, an advocacy organization aimed at reducing tobacco consumption. In the last two weeks, TCD has spoken with community members and tavern owners about their thoughts on the statewide ban and found that, at least in Milwaukee, opinions are split down the middle. Some welcome the mass extinguish with open arms (and lungs) and others feel it impinges on their personal freedoms. I think most can agree, though, that it is a step in the right direction for Milwaukee, and for Wisconsin.

I chatted with Maureen to get her personal thoughts on Act 12, and why it is so vital to the city.

What was the motivation for the statewide ban? Who is this helping?

There’s a lot of evidence in terms of exposure of second-hand smoke being dangerous. The Surgeon General in 2006 came out with his report and the big statement was that the science was clear–there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke. A lot of folks who have worked with us over the years have health impacts, meaning they cannot be exposed to tobacco smoke. It causes an asthma attack or they feel sick for a variety of reasons. So, the motivation is mainly related to health. And there’s still evidence that proves that it improves health. Sometimes we think a law might be a good idea, but this actually is.

How long as this legislation been in the works?

The whole movement from a national standpoint started in the ’70s when the flight attendants sued the airlines for exposure to second-hand smoke on airplanes. They won that suit and things started to change because people realized what it’s like. In Wisconsin, the first law that was passed was the city of Madison. It was an ordinance that made all restaurants that don’t serve alcohol go smoke free, and if you had a low percentage of alcohol — 30 percent — who also had to go smoke free. So, that started things, and then there were a number of other ordinances that were passed throughout the ’90s and obviously in the 2000s.

Did Wisconsin feel pressure when other Midwestern states enacted a smoking ban?

It depends on who you talk to. Some people don’t care what other states are doing, and that’s the way it is. Other people see progress going forward and definitely feel pressure to move along. For a while we were saying that Wisconsin was the “ashtray of the Midwest.” We can’t say that anymore. So, I think it does have some of that effect, but really what changes folks’ minds is that once you experience [going smoke-free] you never want to go back.

Even bar owners who are really opposed over the years have told us, “I was wrong. This is a great law.” They find there’s a lot less cleaning in their bar. They feel better. There are fewer sick days for their employees because their employees feel better. So it’s a real win-win.

What do tavern owners need to do to follow the smoking ban?


Photo by Nicole Braunsdorf

They need to make sure there aren’t ashtrays inside, they’re not supplying them with smoking equipment, and if anyone does light up that they ask them to put it out or step outside. If the person refuses, [the bartender must] refuse to serve them any longer. If they are still having trouble, they can call law enforcement.

Do you foresee tavern owners being unwilling to enforce the ban?

There will be a very small number of bar owners who do not want to comply with the law. There are every time a smoke free ordinance goes into effect, and it happens in every state. I fully expect that to happen again, but they will be few and far between. I would guess [that there will be] less than one percent that don’t follow it. Most bar owners are law-abiding and aren’t going to try to make some political statement.

In a way they’re caught in between a rock and a hard place because the Tavern League signed off on this. So, who’s left opposing it? In Wausau, there was a guy from the Ukraine who called it Communism, and he protested and tried to make his bar a private club even though it clearly wasn’t. But he lost in court and I think he’s now complying. I think most people will come around without too much effort.

The fine for bars is $100 and up to $250 for smokers. Is there a penalty for receiving too many citations?

No, it doesn’t have a cumulative effect. The thought behind the penalties is to bring people into compliance. It’s not to punish or try to make a lot of money off a non-complying bar. It’s set up where there’s a warning to say, “Hey, we heard there’s smoking in your bar. You need to comply with the law.” So, that’s how the penalty structure is set up. In most states after a couple of months, everything settles down.

There has been some discussion over what’s considered an “enclosed” space. Do you think we’ve seen the end of the public smoking debate or are we going to be arguing semantics forever?

Well, let’s hope we’re not arguing. The way the law ended up being written wasn’t drafted as clearly as either side thought it could or should have been. Because there is some ambiguity in the law. So that’s a bit of an issue. The Tavern League wanted to make sure that folks could smoke outside on patios. Even in Wisconsin, the city of Verona passed a smoke-free law that included their outdoor areas.

For one year, Verona could not allow smoking on a patio outside. Now, obviously, that’s granted in state law. It’ll be interesting to see how many owners go back to allowing it. A lot of folks in that community are sick of not being able to eat outside in the summer. Science on exposure to smoke even outside is being studied. There’s a reason this stuff smells toxic. Even limited exposure outside may have a detrimental impact on your health. And we’ll be looking at the research on that as well. The debate on this stuff won’t be over for a while because it’s an evolution.

In California, they’re having parks go smoke free. That’s started here to some extent–not so much for exposure but the toxic trash that’s left behind. The cigarettes don’t dissolve, and those carcinogens are still in that part that’s left. They did an experiment where they threw some fish in a big tub of water and threw some cigarettes in there and all the fish died. So, folks are saying we need to watch where we allow this to control where the trash is. As we learn more about the science, things will continue to evolve over time.

To read the legislative brief from 2009 Wisconsin Act 12 click here.

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