Despite the balking of many community residents and businesses, the Eau Claire City Council passed a ban late Tuesday on indoor smoking in public places, including taverns.
On a 7-4 vote, Eau Claire’s ban will take effect July 1 and will join seven other Wisconsin communities in the smoke-free trend.
City ordinances banning indoor smoking have already taken effect in Madison and Shorewood Hills in Dane County. Fitchburg will become the next smoke-free city starting Tuesday.
“We’re thrilled the Eau Claire City Council has taken this step to protect the health of its workers,” said Alison Prange, Wisconsin government relations director for the American Cancer Society.
A city meeting preceded the vote Tuesday, drawing hundreds of people. According to Rob Swearingen, president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the opponents far outnumbered supporters and the meeting did not draw to a close until after midnight.
Swearingen added he suspects that members of the Eau Claire City Council favoring the ban came to the public meeting with their minds made up in advance, although City Council member Thomas Kemp refuted this idea.
“The meeting was just the tip of the iceberg,” Kemp said. “I got hundreds of e-mails and about 50 phone calls favoring the ban, and I think it’s correct to say that the majority of the community is in favor of the ban.”
Kemp added that regardless of opposition voices, the data on negative health effects from secondhand smoke inhaled in a closed area is conclusive and cannot be ignored.
Kemp likened the situation to waving your arm: You can wave your arm as much as you want until you hit someone else, and it becomes a social issue.
The ban in Eau Claire has brought out further debate of a statewide ban on indoor smoking in public areas. State bills died with the end of the legislative session last week, but many lawmakers believe they will resurface at the start of the next session in January.
Twenty-three states, including Illinois and Minnesota, have successfully passed legislation banning indoor smoking on the state level.
Arguments in favor of a statewide ban have centered on the inconsistency of city ordinances to the Wisconsin business communities.
“The Wisconsin Restaurant Association supports a level playing field,” said the association’s director, Pete Hanson. “All businesses, including restaurants and taverns, should have the same regulations to follow.”
Opponents of the ban have focused on the detriment it could cause the business community, as well as the infringement of personal freedoms that an indoor smoking ban would produce.
“It’s not about health, it’s about business,” Swearingen said. “The taverns in Eau Claire have lost a right.”
According to Swearingen, 30 bars in Madison have gone out of business as a result of the smoking ban.
Swearingen added the Tavern League has offered different options, including a gradual “phase-in,” to strike a compromise with proponents of a smoking ban.