Next week marks five years since the Madison Common Council passed a citywide smoking ban. Though similar bans were already enacted in New York City and Ireland, the move was seen as so bold and controversial that Madison's remaining cancer-friendly businesses, mainly bars and bowling alleys, were given 14 months to brace for the change. Then they cried bloody murder and tried to recall Mayor Dave.
"We faced a lot of pressure," recalls Tommye Schneider, director of environmental health for Public Health Madison and Dane County, a title so long you practically need a cigarette break after typing it. "The Tavern League was all over us."
But while she doesn't doubt some bar owners lost money, Schneider says only a handful went out of business, and "in every case somebody else bought the place and put a new business in." She notes that the Madison area still has plenty of bars, and "these places are pretty darn full."
Overall, Schneider calls the ban "extremely popular," especially among the more than 80% of the populace that doesn't smoke. And a UW study found that Madison bar owners and patrons have improved respiratory health.
Ryan Sheahan of Tobacco Free Dane County, part of the health department, has tracked the economic impacts. He says the number of liquor licenses in Madison (for all businesses that serve alcohol, not just bars) rose 7% between July 2005, when the ban took effect, and March 2009, when there were 357.
"The sky's not falling," he says. "We've come a long way."
In fact, Madison's move now seems prescient. Five of Dane County's seven cities have voted to go smoke-free, with Verona joining the pack on Aug. 15. That's also when the lights will go out (get it?) at bars in the county's unincorporated areas. And Gov. Jim Doyle's budget includes language to impose a statewide ban.
Now communities that still allow smoking face growing pressure to get off their butts. As Sheahan puts it, "The argument five years ago was, 'If we're smoke-free, we're an island.' Now it's, 'We're the island if we're not smoke-free."