Undercover: Investigating Smoking Ban Compliance in Central Wisconsin

By: Jennifer Kliese Email
By: Jennifer Kliese Email

A year after the statewide smoking ban takes effect, it's still getting a rise out of people. In fact, health officials say some local bar owners aren't afraid to admit they refuse to follow the law, allowing smoking in their businesses.

A year after the statewide smoking ban took effect, bar-goers are adjusting to heading outside for a smoke. And most non-smokers say they're much more comfortable with the clean air. And even some smokers say the changes dont bother them too much.

Many bar owners say the ban has helped business, and a statewide study offers further proof. Results showed taverns continued to do well under the new law, which is good news for the industry.

"We track our sales daily, and in comparison to last year we are up and we think part of that may have something to do with the smoking ban," says Rick Rotzoll, owner of Rick's 45 Roadhouse in Antigo.

But others strongly disagree. Peter Rank, owner of Not Bob's bar in Antigo, thinks the smoking ban has hurt his business. He says he hasn't seen any new customers and he's losing the ones he had.

"Our business is down probably 20-30% prior to that I had 40 months of positive growth," says Rank.

Those who oppose the law believe the government is showing a lack of support for small business.

"That's just not right I pay the taxes on this business, I run this business and I'm having somebody else tell me how to do this business," Rank says.

But one question is still on our minds: are smokers and business owners following the law everywhere? Marathon County Lt. Chad Billeb says the department has only gotten a handful of complaints all year, handing out just two citations. And while smoking may still be going on in area establishments the lack of violations is a good sign.

"There's obviously is good compliance otherwise we'd receive more complaints than we currently are receiving," says Billeb.

The coordinator of Central Wisconsin Tobacco Free Coalition, Dot Kalmon, visits local owners after complaints are filed to show them how to better run a healthy workplace.

"It's not a matter of just catching them doing something wrong.. it's about helping them understand that we care about smokers and non-smokers alike," says Kalmon.

But one year later, what's surprised health officials is they haven't received many complaints. The coalition got just 18 in the area in the past year, and numbers continue dropping statewide. The first month there were 205 and last month just 48.

While few complaints is good to see authorities are still not sure if its thanks to compliance or a lack of people willing to speak up. And some people say the efforts are not working.

"There are some places that cuz the bartenders and people smoke they allow 'em to smoke in there and usually I told them that's the last time I'm coming in," says bar-goer Richard Olson.

So we set out to see if bar owners in Northcentral Wisconsin are following the law one year later. We took a hidden camera inside some of our local taverns.

And what we found was surprising. Even though many said they'd seen people smoking in local bars we couldn't find any. In fact, we actually saw some people using electronic cigarettes and many heading outside for a smoke break. We visited about a dozen taverns in different parts Northcentral Wisconsin at different times of day and saw nothing that indicated anyone was smoking.

But although we never saw anyone light up, we did visit a few bars that smelled as if someone had been smoking there earlier.

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