Wisconsin bar owners worry about impact of statewide smoking ban

At Brewer’s Center Tavern in Albany, the game was pinochle.

Down the block at Clayt’s Corner Bar, the card game of choice was euchre.

The friendly but competitive gatherings all started before noon and included mixed drinks, cans of Old Milwaukee and light clouds of cigarette smoke.

In just over a year, the smoke will be gone and the owners of the two iconic bars are hopeful that the card games and their customers will remain.

Advocates of a statewide smoking ban, which includes bars and restaurants and begins July 5, 2010, say the ban will largely eliminate the risk of secondhand smoke and will not force bars out of business.

The measure, signed last month by Gov. Jim Doyle, has been criticized by many in the shot-and-a-beer crowd who prefer to drag on a marlboro cigarettes sale or other brand while sipping their drink.

And for some small taverns, there is little to no room for a patio for smokers, something allowed in the new law.

At Clayt’s, on the corner of North Water and Oak streets and within eyesight of the Sugar River in downtown Albany, the front and side entrances provide just a few feet of sidewalk and no room for tables and chairs.

“I’m just stuck,” said Clayt Sowl, who smokes Camels and has owned the bar for 33 years. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it, but I haven’t come up with an answer.”

At Brewer’s, black plastic ashtrays line the bar, known for its pool and dart leagues and small kitchen where owners Colleen and Gary Brewer have been broiling hamburgers and serving up drinks since 1967. Three circular smoke filters spin from the ceiling and two air purifiers mounted to the wall work to clear the air. Like Clayt’s, there is little room for smoking outside.

“It’s going to be quite a change,” said Colleen Brewer, who stopped smoking 17 years ago. “I don’t think it’s going to be good. Hopefully we can keep our customers.”

Brewer and Sowl both predict that some taverns around the state will be forced to close because of the smoking ban.

27th state to pass ban

But the state is hardly charting new waters.

Wisconsin is the 27th state to pass a smoking ban, joining others like New York, California, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The Michigan House recently passed a statewide ban that still needs approval by the state Senate. Tobacco Road state North Carolina passed a smoking ban this year.

Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of Smoke Free Wisconsin, is not convinced that a smoking ban will doom the tavern industry. She points to Madison where, after a city smoking ban went into effect in 2005, the number of liquor licenses increased.

“The facts don’t bear it out,” Busalacchi said of predicted mass closings. “I totally understand that businesses will be impacted, but how they choose to position themselves will determine how well they do in the new environment.”

Busalacchi believes the patio provision pushed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin may hurt more than it helps. She said it will create an uneven playing field between those with room and the money to build a patio and those who don’t.

Rob Swearingen, president of the Tavern League and owner of the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander, said his organization went along with a compromise that allowed the ban to be phased in and offered pre-emption, meaning no local ordinances could be more restrictive than the state law. The ability for smoking outside was also important.

“We believe we had to act now or we may have jeopardized the ability of your customers to even smoke outside,” Swearingen wrote May 6 to the more than 5,000 Tavern League members. “We did the best job we could and we hope you can understand and appreciate why we ultimately supported the compromise.”

Good news for Verona bar owners

For Verona bar owners, where a city smoking ban goes into affect Aug. 15, the statewide ban next year will be good news. The city ordinance will prohibit smoking on patios but the state law will allow it.

“People will have to be out in the parking lot smoking,” Jamie Sumnicht, a manager at the Drafthouse Bar & Restaurant, said of the city ban.

When the state ban kicks in, the business will have areas on the patio for smokers and non-smokers.

“We don’t want to offend our non-smokers,” she said.

At Kimmie’s Sportz Page in Argyle, along the Pecatonica River in eastern Lafayette County, owner Kim Marty isn’t sure if she’ll build a patio and, like other bar owners, is upset that the Native American casinos are not part of the ban.

One of her customers, Joanie Root, has been coming to the bar for 40 years. She thinks the rising price of cigarettes will lessen the impact of the smoking ban as economics force more people to quit. Some cigarettes at Kimmie’s are sold for as much as $7.25 a pack.

“It might be a good thing for everyone,” Root said. “I’ll probably have to quit smoking because there isn’t a whole lot going on in Argyle and most of my friends come here.”

Diversifying to succeed

Diversity may be the key to success for taverns.

Dawn Lageson bought her bar in downtown Blanchardville 18 months ago because she wanted to own her own place. The businesses, now called Lady Dawn’s Sports Bar & Grill, came with an expansive outdoor beer garden, which made the purchase attractive. She serves more than 200 at her Friday night fish fries, has Mexican food on Thursdays, offers daily lunch specials and has a salad bar. Cigarettes sell for more than $8 a pack.

“I can’t really see it affecting my business,” Lageson said of the smoking ban. “A lot of these places that don’t have food, I’m amazed at.”

Scott Garthwaite bought his bar in the Iowa County village of Ridgeway last July and spent $40,000 bringing the business up to code. Now called Spiff’s Bar & Grill, about 70 percent of his revenues come from food, which includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, including a Friday fish fry.

He’s also the cousin of Rep. Phil Garthwaite, D-Dickeyville, one of the few Democrats to oppose the smoking-ban legislation.

“We just try and have good food, keep it clean, with reasonable prices and hope that’s enough,” said Scott Garthwaite, who works part time in insurance and pitches in the Home Talent League. “I think (the ban is) going to work both ways. You’ll drive some away but pull some in.”


The statewide smoking ban that prohibits smoking in workplaces, including bars and restaurants, takes effect July 5, 2010. Here are some key provision:

• It pre-empts local ordinances, meaning that communities that now have more restrictive rules will have to follow the state law. However, counties, cities, villages, towns and school districts may prohibit smoking outside but only on public property.

• Smoking will be allowed outside a business.

• Enforcement will be done by local officials.

• No fines will be issued on a first offense and there will be no fine to the owner of a business or employee if they summon authorities. Fines range from $100 to $250 but may not exceed $100 per day for a person in charge of a facility.

• Regardless of the number of fines, violations cannot be used as a reason not to renew a liquor license.

• The law does not allow for rooms to be set aside for smoking

• There are some places where smoking still will be allowed. Tribal casinos and existing cigar bars and specialty tobacco shops will not be subject to the ban.

• Smoking is permitted in certain residence rooms in assisted living facilities.

Source: Legislative Reference Bureau

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