One year ago, restaurant and bar owners had questions about what the statewide smoking ban would mean for their businesses. Now that the legislation has become a fact of life, the effects of the legislation are a little less hazy.
At , owner John Pandl and his employees are glad they can go home without smelling like an ashtray, but Pandl said he has noticed some regular customers are returning home instead of staying for another drink at the bar.
“We have probably lost some bar patrons, because smoking and drinking kind of go together,” Pandl said. “They probably go home sooner to drink there and smoke there and have conversations.”
Although the ban was heavily debated before it became law on July 5, 2010, Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of SmokeFree Wisconsin, says the law now has widespread support – not just among the public but among those who work in taverns.
A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that 72 percent of bartenders supported the law after it was implemented.
“They feel better. Don’t have runny noses, they’re not sneezing or coughing, or having the bloodshot eyes they used to,” Busalacchi said. “And they found that business has remained stable.”
Is ban good for bad for business?
One of the main objections to the law a year ago was that it would hurt business at bars and restaurants because smokers would stay away from those establishments if they weren’t allowed to light up. But Busalacchi says that hasn’t been the case.
She said in the first six months after the law was passed, state figures showed that business in Wisconsin’s hospitality industry rose 1.5 percent over the previous year. But in bars, business was up 3.5 percent during that same period.
“I don’t doubt that some people had a decline in business,” she said. “But overall most places are doing better than before.”
However, the impact of the smoking ban goes beyond just dollars and cents.
“Of course, the reason this law was passed was so people would be in better health and that has been established,” Busalacchi said. “It’s probably one of the most popular laws on the books. People accept it and comply with it and are healthier with it. And Wisconsin is better off being smoke-free.”
The same view is held by Allison Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.
“From our perspective, things are working really well,” she said. “The law was always intended to be about public health and it’s clearly working when it comes to protecting workers and everybody in Wisconsin from the dangers of secondhand smoke in work places, including bars and restaurants.”
“A poll that we did of Wisconsin residents found that 75 percent of people believe secondhand smoke is a serious health hazard and the same percentage believe it’s important to have smoke-free work places, including bars and restaurants,” she said. “Clearly, people believe that this law is about public health.”
Tavern owners say law is hurting them
While both Miller and Busalacchi contend the ban isn’t hurting businesses at Wisconsin taverns and restaurants, officials at the Tavern League of Wisconsin said their members are taking a hit.
“The ban has been devastating to a lot of the small bars, mom-and-pop operations, where it was a blue-collar bar to begin with and most of their customers were smokers,” said Barbara Mercer, senior vice president of the organization. “I myself faced a 35 percent loss of business and for anyone to say that the smoking ban hasn’t hurt small businesses, it’s simply not true.”
Mercer said her Madison bar took a big hit – and she says the smoking ban is without a doubt a factor.
“I just sold my bar yesterday after 20 years because it was either that or close it,” she said in an interview last week. “A good part of it was the economy, no question about that, but I had to lay off nine full-time employees in the last year.
“I had six bars close in Madison in the last few weeks,” Mercer added. “They just couldn’t make it because of the losses between the economy and the smoking ban. When you put one on top of the other it was just a double whammy to us.”
She was also disheartened by Gov. Scott Walker’s recent announcement that . Walker was an opponent of the legislation but now says he believes it is working.
“The governor, who promised us that he would look at the law seriously, has commented that he thinks the law is a good thing and he’s going to leave it in place,” Mercer said. “It’s just one more thing that the governor has lied to us about. We’re very disappointed in his position to not look at this and make some exceptions and changes.”
Rob Swearingen, president of the Tavern League, echoed Mercer’s comments.
“I would say that the law is not working very well,” he said. “There are quite a few of our members that have taken a real hit, some as much as 40 to 60 percent loss in business, especially during the winter months when we are forced to go outside and smoke in subzero weather.”
While some taverns have built outdoor areas for their smoking customers, not all of them can do so, he said.
“A lot of our members don’t have the resources to build a smoking enclosure. Coupled with the economy, the smoking ban is the last nail in the coffin for some of these people,” Swearingen added.
Restaurant association backs ban
But Peter Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, says the ban has been good for eateries across the state.
“You’re going to hear that it’s been bad for business. But if you look at the statistics like employment in the hospitality industry, if you look at sales tax receipts from the state Department of Revenue for restaurants and taverns, you can see that the food and beverage business expanded last year. Sales went up,” he said.
“Somebody could say a dozen bars went out of business in Madison last year. Well, it was the same way five years ago and 10 years ago,” Hanson added. “Businesses go out of business and new businesses buy that place, get a liquor license and open up with a new concept. There is a cycle with turnover within the restaurant and tavern industry.”
One aspect of the law that can’t be disputed is its popularity among Wisconsinites.
A poll released last week by the American Cancer Society and SmokeFree Wisconsin found that 75 percent of those surveyed support or strongly support the law. That’s up from 69 percent in 2008, when state lawmakers were still debating the issue.
The poll of 500 voters, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, also found that 64 percent say the law has made going out to bars and restaurants more enjoyable while 91 percent say they go out to eat and drink the same or more often now that the state is smoke free.