MILWAUKEE (AP) - When Wisconsin enacted a workplace smoking ban in in 2010, the state's hospitality industry worried the move would drive away customers. But two years on, the industry says its sales were largely unaffected.
State tax-collection data show that sales at restaurants and taverns increased 1 percent in 2010 and 2 percent last year, mirroring national trends, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.
The ban "wasn't a boon to our industry, but it doesn't seem to have hurt our sales," said Pete Hanson, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
While sales were up overall for the industry, the subcategory of bars and taverns did see a decrease of about 4 percent in that period, Hanson said. However, he noted that trend has been going on for a number of years and couldn't necessarily be attributed to the smoking ban.
The law, which bans smoking in public places and workplaces, took effect two years ago Thursday. It prohibits smoking in a wide range of locations, including state or local government buildings, bars, restaurants, stores, hotels, day care centers, and hospitals.
Opponents, especially those in the tavern industry, criticized the ban as an unnecessary intrusion that would deter customers who want to smoke.
Supporters countered that the law would protect the health of both customers and employees, such as waitresses, who would otherwise be exposed to secondhand smoke. They also predicted the ban would attract business from asthmatics and other nonsmokers who previously avoided smoky establishments.
Some taverns compromised by adding open-air shelters when customers can smoke. Kathy Martin, the owner of Dockside Pub and Grille in Beaver Dam, said that solution worked for her but that not every business has the space.
Legally, the enclosed areas where smoking is prohibited are defined as spaces with a roof and at least three "substantial walls." There has been no agreement on what constitutes a substantial wall.
An official with the Tavern League of Wisconsin wonders whether the ban might have contributed to some bars going out of business. Pete Madland, the group's executive director, said its membership is down over the last two years. The recession was a big reason, he said, but the smoking ban was a "contributing factor."
Martin, who is also the president of the Dodge County Tavern League, agreed. Despite adding a new smoking area, business was down 30 percent, she said.
"People were used to coming in, sitting at the bar, and having a drink and a cigarette," Martin said, but now "people don't stay."
Maureen Busalacchi, the executive director of SmokeFree Wisconsin, said it's nearly impossible to quantify why customers stop coming in, especially when economic times are tough.
When the Legislature is back in session next year, Martin said the Tavern League hopes to pursue legislation that would allow indoor smoking areas that are closed off from the rest of the bar, a solution she says would please both smokers and nonsmokers.
But Busalacchi said SmokeFree Wisconsin would fight any legislation of that nature.
"You start messing around with partially enclosed or that kind of thing, and you end up contaminating all of the air," she said.
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