Business owners are up in arms over a prospective city ordinance they say would have harmful consequences on their revenue.

Madison’s City Council will vote Tuesday whether to pass an ordinance that would prohibit smoking in a significant number of restaurants that double as bars.

The ordinance would require a ban on smoking in bars that generate less than half of their revenue through alcohol sales.

Proponents of the ordinance point to California’s recent decision to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants as an example of what would happen to Madison businesses.

“Evidence from California shows that a smoking ban does not have any negative effect on business. If anything, gross receipts receive a boost,” said Ryan Mulcahy, assistant to the mayor.

Ald. Paul Van Rooy, District 18, a sponsor of the ordinance, agreed.

“From the reports I’ve seen, after a period, the businesses are better off than before,” he said. “There is no negative effect on business. Opponents made the same claims in 1992 before we passed the current ordinance, banning smoking in restaurants with less than 33 percent alcohol sales, but all of them have better business than before.”

Ross Johnson, general manager of State Street Brats, is among those whose establishments would be effected by the ordinance and disagrees with Van Rooy’s claim that bars’ sales figures would be unaffected, pointing to profit patterns in the aftermath of a 1992 Madison smoking ordinance.

“A few years ago, there was an ordinance passed that prohibited smoking in restaurants with less than 33 percent alcohol sales. We saw our lunch sales go up 10 percent,” he said. “So this means that next time, people who are again alienated will go and find business somewhere else.”

Bar owners stressed their right as business owners to make their own choices.

“The good old American way should prevail. If a need is there, it should be fulfilled. Once again, Big Brother is coming down,” said Larry Schmock, owner of a number of bars, including the State Bar and Grill, Blue Velvet Lounge, and Smokey’s Bar and Grill. “If the ordinance is passed, both the State and Smokey’s Bar and Grill will be forced to become smoke-free. People should make a choice. If you don’t like smoke, go somewhere else. You have your choice. Not a lot of vegetarians come to State Street Brats because of the menu. Adamant non-smokers don’t come here either.”

In response to the question over the risks to employee health from secondhand smoke, Schmock once again trumpeted the rights of business owners and the facts of bar environments.

“The bar and restaurant trade is an environment with smoke,” he said. “I wouldn’t suggest a job in the industry to someone with emphysema or asthma. I also wouldn’t recommend a job as a coal miner or installing fiberglass to someone with allergies or asthma.”

Johnson does not believe secondhand smoke in his restaurant poses a health risk to employees.

“We have tons of air-conditioning equipment on the rooftop moving the air around,” he said. “The issue of smoke is not legitimate. It has been exaggerated.”

Schmock also stressed the potential problem of enforcing a non-smoking ordinance in his bars.

“I have seen from some sources that out in California, people are smoking anyway,” Schmock said. “The police here have plenty to do other than sneak up on someone in a bar with a cigarette and write a ticket. The city can’t afford to hire full-time cigarette police. They can’t even afford to enforce it.”

Ald. Jean MacCubbin, District 11, is hopeful the ordinance, if passed, will assist those attempting to quit smoking by requiring smokers to go to greater lengths to light up.

“It’s going to be a change in behavior that people will have to live with,” MacCubbin said. “People will have to think more about going outside and actually smoking.”
Van Rooy said there has been talk among alders about the possibility of installing a complete ban; he suggested a future attempt by alders to completely abolish smoking in bars is likely. MacCubbin believes further action by the city would likely result in a comprehensive ban on smoking in bars.
“A few people are talking about it and would like to see that, but right now, we’re concentrating on what we’re trying to pass now. I have no plans as to whether or not we will try to do that,” Van Rooy said.