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The Time Is Now

Why Milwaukee should go smoke-free

Nov. 12, 2007
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So why hasn`t Milwaukee gone smoke-free?

As Milwaukee undergoes a "renaissance," as Mayor Tom Barrett calls it, the city is trending toward a younger, hipper, more vibrant urban area. This is a city that supports the arts, is cleaning up its waterways and parks and is investing in a cooler architectural landscape.

All of these changes can only make Milwaukee a more desirable place to live, work and play in.

But one factor is keeping Milwaukee stuck in the past.

Like the residents of Ireland, New York, Chicago and France, Milwaukeeans know how to have a good time. But unlike the diners and drinkers in those cities, Milwaukeeans must endure smoky bars and noxious air in restaurants. Unlike other forward-looking and health-conscious communities, Milwaukee`s public health is determined by the 29% of city residents who smoke, as well as the powerful and vocal alcohol and tobacco lobbies.

Yet according to UW research, more than 70% of Wisconsin residents would like to see smoke-free restaurants and two-thirds of those polled would like to see smoking either limited or eliminated in bars.

Adults have a right to smoke, but employees and business patrons have the right to clean air as well. There is this clash of rights; the problem is that one group`s rights directly and negatively affects the rights of others.

Smoking is a choice, at least at first, before it becomes an addiction. But nonsmokers—innocent bystanders—are still forced to risk their health in Milwaukee`s hot spots, the majority of which allow smoking.

And that makes Milwaukee residents and visitors who don`t smoke more vulnerable to upper respiratory problems, lung cancer and coronary heart disease. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, a Bush administration appointee, who released a comprehensive report on the effects of secondhand smoke, people who do not smoke but are exposed to it still suffer adverse health consequences; no ventilation system exists that can scrub carcinogens and other pollutants from smoke-filled air.

Indeed, there is no such thing as safe smoke—not to smokers, or their friends or their kids.

"Cities Evolve"

So why is Milwaukee still rooted in its past, even when it is a heritage that is causing disease, adding to skyrocketing health-care costs and solidifying our image as a stubborn city, resistant to change, even when every credible scientific source indicates that smoking is killing us?

Ald. Joe Davis, who has spearheaded efforts to make Milwaukee a smoke-free city, said that it`s time to change. He said younger Milwaukeeans—especially the educated, professional workers the city is trying to attract—are used to smoke-free environments and want to take care of their health even when they`re in public.

"Cities evolve," Davis said. "At one time racism was part of Milwaukee`s culture, but we overcame that."

Davis said that making that cultural shift requires taking a risk. After all, a smoke-free Milwaukee would upturn the city`s longstanding love of a shot, a beer and a cigarette all enjoyed in the comfort of one`s corner tavern.

Last summer, when Davis` proposed smoke-free ordinance was debated, members of the Tavern League of Wisconsin led protests against it, and debate was heated, both for and against it. Davis attempted to negotiate on some parts of the ordinance by offering a phase-in period for taverns and allowing hotels and motels to reserve at least 20% of its rooms for smokers.

The compromise was only one-sided, and the ordinance never made it out of committee.

But despite the push-back from bar owners and smokers, Davis said banning smoking from all public places is worth the risk and political fallout.

"Sometimes we have to take on those challenges and find out what`s in the best interests of not only this generation, the younger generation, but for future generations," Davis said. "And that takes true leadership."

But that kind of leadership has been lacking in the city. After Davis` ordinance was declared dead before the full council could vote on it, Mayor Barrett promised to seek a regional ban by linking with surrounding suburbs that also wanted to go smoke-free but wanted to find safety in numbers. But that promise fizzled.

"I`ve talked informally to a number of mayors and other local elected officials," Barrett said in an interview last week. "There were a number that had spring elections in this year, and the reaction I got was, let`s wait until after the elections."

Now, Shorewood is considering a ban, while Kenosha has a partial ban, and Madison and Appleton are 100% smoke-free in public places, including bars and restaurants.

Wauwatosa eliminated smoking in almost all public areas last year, due to public demand, Mayor Theresa Estness said. Surveys were done before the ordinance was introduced in 2003 and the city`s common council voted overwhelmingly to go smoke-free, with exemptions for some restaurants that provide a smoke-free space for patrons, as well as bars. While the public has responded positively, Estness claimed, some bar/restaurants, such as Hector`s on State Street and Bigg`s Roadhouse on Mayfair Road, are trying to get smoking back into their establishments. One issue is Wauwatosa`s close proximity to Milwaukee, where smoking continues unhindered.

"It certainly would make it easier for us if someone else would take this step, but I don`t know that they`re going to," Estness said.

Milwaukee Ald. Mike Murphy said he would support a citywide ban on smoking. He said that while some businesses could suffer, especially as bar- and restaurant-goers get used to nonsmoking environments, he`s seen smoking bans work in other communities—even in cigarette-loving Ireland, where his cousins say they prefer to drink their pints in pubs with clean air.

But Murphy cautioned that it would be a hard sell in Milwaukee, where barhopping is just as popular as it is in Ireland. "It`s not a politically easy decision to reach because I think some people would never vote for me again because of it," Murphy said. "But at the same time every survey I`ve ever seen has shown that the vast majority of people in the state and city support the ban."

Statewide Ban in the Works

In January, Gov. Jim Doyle announced with much fanfare his three-pronged attack on cigarettes. Doyle`s initiative would not only ban smoking in all public places in the state—including restaurants and taverns—but would also increase the 77 cent per-pack tax another $1.25 and boost funding for anti-smoking educational programs.

Most local officials said they prefer a statewide ban to a Milwaukee-only ban, since it would level the playing field for all businesses in Wisconsin. A state ban would also allow local officials to avoid making a tough decision on which way to vote.

"If you`re going to do it, that`s the best approach," said Ald. Jim Bohl of the statewide ban. Bohl`s district borders other communities that allow smoking.

Barrett said Doyle`s proposal means he won`t have to seek a regional ban in Milwaukee County.

"If the ban goes through at the state, then I don`t see how anyone can say that they`re driving customers out of the city," Barrett said. "If I were a betting man, I would bet that the state ban will go through."

Even a representative of the Tavern League said the statewide ban was fine—as long as it includes an exemption for taverns, bars and restaurants.

"Our take on the issue is no ban, no way, no tax," said Sharon Nowak, president of the Milwaukee County Hospitality Association. "We want a legislative policy to make a case to exempt all taverns and the bar area of all restaurants."

Ald. Bob Donovan, a heavy smoker and perhaps Milwaukee`s most vocal supporter of smokers` rights, blasted the governor`s proposal to reduce the burden of tobacco on the state`s smokers and nonsmokers alike.

"I plan on organizing rallies in the approaching days and weeks in order to energize Milwaukeeans and others who are angry not only because of the governor`s two-pronged attack [the increased tax and proposed ban], but also because they feel like somehow someone has decided that it`s OK to step all over smokers," Donovan said in a statement. Indeed, pro-smokers are planning a rally at Serb Hall on March 3 to rally its troops in an effort to shoot down the governor`s proposal.

Ald. Tony Zielinski, a self-described "health enthusiast" who as a Milwaukee County supervisor in the 1990s initiated the ban on smoking in all county buildings, said he also prefers an exemption for bars and taverns.

"People have a choice," Zielinski said. "If you don`t want to go into a bar or restaurant where there`s smoking you have plenty of other options."

However, he added, if his constituents wanted a smoke-free city, he would vote for it.

"From a health perspective, this is a no-brainer," Zielinski said. "But you have to balance that with people`s right to smoke."

Ald. Robert Bauman, who opposed Davis` citywide ban, said he would support a statewide smoking ban that exempts bars and taverns, and predicted one would be included in whatever legislation is passed.

The alderman, a cigar smoker, said he seeks out bars that allow him to light up, since that`s what he likes to do when he goes out. He also shot down observations that Milwaukee residents, especially younger Milwaukeeans, are more health conscious and want to see more smoke-free establishments.

"Maybe the people who stay home are health conscious but the people I see out, I see being no more health conscious than any other generation that preceded them in terms of the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes," Bauman said.

Why Milwaukee Should Go For It

From a public health standpoint, there`s virtually no reason why Milwaukee or Wisconsin should continue allowing smokers to light up in public. The sooner Milwaukee or the state enacts a smoking ban, the sooner we`ll feel better, reduce potential harm and return to our roots as a public-health-promoting community.

"Wisconsin had a very progressive movement toward health," said City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker. "Milwaukee was once the healthiest city. [Going smoke-free] puts us in a position to join cities like Chicago and Minneapolis and countries like Ireland in being extremely progressive about the public`s health."

Milwaukee, as the largest municipality in Wisconsin, could be a pacesetter in helping Wisconsin become a healthier state and bring down health-care costs.

"There are towns and villages that look at Milwaukee as a leader in the state," Ald. Davis said. "We can truly set a precedent in giving the data that towns and villages need in order for them not to be concerned about enacting an ordinance of this magnitude."

A smoking ban would almost immediately show health benefits. A study conducted by UW researchers found that bartenders in Madison and Appleton had fewer upper respiratory problems after smoke-free ordinances were enacted in those cities. Nancy Kreuser, RN, Ph.D., Wauwatosa`s health officer, provided peer-reviewed studies showing that heart attack hospitalizations declined after, for example, Pueblo, Colo., Helena, Mont., and the Piedmont region of Italy enacted smoking bans.

Kreuser said because smoking affects everyone exposed, it`s different—and more dangerous to the public—than consuming other bad-for-you but legal products, such as cholesterol-laden steaks or fast food.

"If you take away exposure to smoke, the health risks go away," Kreuser said of smoking`s threat to nonsmokers. "That`s why smoking is so different. You know that it results directly in harmful effects."

But Nowak, of the Milwaukee County Hospitality Association, said she`s not convinced of the health benefits of going smoke-free, even if that means bar and restaurant employees would be healthier and more productive in a cleaner environment.

"I just feel that if they know that they`re going into this industry there are many possibilities [for health risks]," Nowak said of those employed by her organization`s members.

Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of SmokeFree Wisconsin, said that all employees should be protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke—even bartenders and wait-staff.

"These are professional people," Busalacchi said of those in the hospitality industry. "It`s sort of odd to me at times how vicious they [bar and restaurant owners] are against [smoke-free ordinances]."

Although many are worried about the possible negative financial consequences of enacting a smoke-free ordinance only in the city, there is evidence showing that those fears are unfounded. A study in El Paso, Texas, concluded that the hospitality industry showed no ill effects from enacting a citywide smoking ban, and other studies of smoke-free municipalities show that border-hopping isn`t as prevalent as first assumed. New York`s hospitality industry rebounded after that city introduced a smoking ban, and bars and restaurants adapted to allow smokers to light up outside.

Ald. Davis said Milwaukee bars are attractive enough to draw people in, even if a smoking ban is implemented.

"There`s nothing like a City of Milwaukee bar," Davis said.

Milwaukee bar and restaurant owners should also consider the numbers of suburban nonsmokers and their families who`d love to spend more time in the city but can`t stand the smoke. The city is home to approximately 130,000 smokers and 453,000 nonsmokers. The Milwaukee County suburbs have 70,000 smokers. But that number is dwarfed by the more than 275,000 nonsmokers who live in those same suburbs.

Ald. Davis said that the younger generation, especially, understands that a smoke-free city ordinance or statewide law is not restrictive and doesn`t limit their choices.

"We`re not trying to stop people from smoking," Davis said. "If people want to continue to smoke, that`s fine. But what I and a lot of my partners in this initiative would like to do is give people who want to be in a healthier environment every opportunity to not be exposed to a cancer-causing agent that could impact the rest of their lives."

This won`t be the Shepherd`s last word on smoking. Future topics include the effects of smoking on businesses, kids, public health costs, minorities and low-income residents, and health-insurance costs, as well as how other cities with smoking bans have fared and how Milwaukee can become the next Seattle.


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