BRYAN FAUST/Herald Photo

The Madison City Council approved an exemption Tuesday to the city's controversial smoking ban which would allow patrons and employees to smoke and use cigar products in licensed establishments.

For the employees of Maduro Cigar Bar, 117 E. Main St., and owner Brian Haltinner, the amendment promises relief to their suffering business.

Haltinner said his business has been "hit doubly hard" and has had a "significant loss" in clientele since the city barred the use of tobacco products in his establishment last July. He was forced to cut back on his employees and reduce the amount of live entertainment at Maduro.

Now in order to apply for the exemption, Haltinner must provide documentation that his business operates on at least 10 percent sale of tobacco products and will not allow cigarette smoking or the serving of food. Current establishments in Madison can also apply for the exemption, if they meet the tobacco sales requirements among others.

"It's been a long battle obviously," Haltinner said after the Council's approval. "We're not looking for anything special … we're looking to get back some part of our business."

Within the next 15 days, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz will sign the amendment into law after which Haltinner can apply for the exemption. Patrons could enjoy cigar products including tobacco chew and tobacco pipes in Maduro sometime thereafter.

This is the third time a cigar bar exemption has gone before the City Council.

Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, the amendment's sponsor, said the approval is "very gratifying."

"I'm very pleased that the alders committed to supporting this … and I'm glad this small business in my district will be able to stay open," he said.

Additionally, Verveer said he will not be proposing further exemptions to the smoking ban, a fear a number of alders and residents addressed during the Council meeting.

The Tuesday vote came after hours of debate both on the Council floor and from supporters and opponents in the community.

For some like Valerie Larsen, a UW student and a representative from Colleges Against Cancer, the exemption only detracts from restrictions set in the city's original smoking ban.

"I worry that this is a slippery slope," Larsen said. "This is one exemption but where do we draw the line?"

Similarly, Jean MacCubbin, a former alderperson and member of the Tobacco Free Dane County Coalition not speaking on behalf of the coalition, questioned the impacts of the amendment.

"We're ready to whittle away a portion of the health code," MacCubbin said to the Council.

Yet Cieslewicz said the exemption is a "relatively minor change" to the smoking ban, which he does not foresee as a problem in the near future.

"I would have preferred [the exemption] had not happened," he said in an interview after the meeting. "I thought the [smoking ban] law is good the way it is."

But Rosemary Lee, a resident and member of the Vending Oversight Committee, said the cigar bar exemption will help the group of employees at Maduro who she knows are struggling.

"We should be helpful, not harmful to [businesses]" Lee said.

The Council also shot down a number of friendly amendments to the cigar bar exemption including a three-year sunset clause, the exclusion of tobacco chew from the amendment, and a motion to place the ordinance on file for possible revision.