Randy Calleja faced a difficult decision before opening Ready Randy's, a western Wisconsin sports bar and restaurant, in 2006: Go smoke-free, knowing that the Wisconsin Legislature might one day pass a statewide ban, or appeal to the hardcore segment of tavern patrons who frequent only smoking-friendly bars?
Calleja chose the no-smoking strategy for his New Richmond business, and he doesn't regret the decision. "We hear more positive than negative,'' he said this week.
Wisconsin legislators who have flailed about on this issue while both Minnesota and Illinois passed statewide bans should visit Ready Randy's on a Friday or Saturday night, when the bar business is hopping. Or spend some time talking with Calleja's 55 employees, some of whom are tavern industry veterans who say they feel a lot healthier working in a smoke-free environment.
It's time for Wisconsin legislators to make the same choice their counterparts made in Minnesota and Illinois in 2007. The effort got a boost this week when state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, announced her support for a ban in public places. "If we're ever going to get serious about controlling health-care costs, we're going to have to get serious about encouraging healthy lifestyles,'' she said.
There's no need to rehash the statistics on the health toll exacted by smoking and secondhand smoke. And Wisconsin lawmakers can no longer argue that residents will hop borders to smoke-filled bars and restaurants in eastern Minnesota or northern Illinois. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle is right to warn that Wisconsin is becoming the ashtray of the Midwest.
Tavern owners who fear losing regulars if a ban is adopted should remember that there may be just as many nonsmokers who might be more apt to buy a burger, have a drink and listen to a band if they knew they wouldn't have to go home smelling and feeling like the butt of a Marlboro. In fact, Calleja said some of his customers used to cross the border to eat and drink smoke-free in Minnesota.
Law enforcement officials say another border crossing pattern continues to bring a small but potentially dangerous group of smokers from Minnesota to western Wisconsin bars, mostly after dark, which is one key reason Gophers should be cheering for a Badger ban. No one wants to give drinkers more motivation to get behind the wheel, when later bar-closing times in Wisconsin already serve as an enticement.
But there's another, more important reason Minnesotans should care about this issue. Despite bitter sports rivalries, the two states are connected much like competitive twins who hide their real feelings. Consider this a "get well'' card from a sibling, Wisconsin, and a nod to a healthier, smoke-free future.