State border now focus of debate over smoking

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2007 - 9:53 PM

One Wisconsin restaurateur says Minnesotans are coming to his smoker-friendly bar, but others say the opposite is true.

Paul Kremer said he has talked with customers from Woodbury, Oakdale and even Minneapolis who crossed the state border into Wisconsin to smoke while they eat and drink.

"It's point-blank: 'We wanted to have a smoke and you're the place we came to,'" said Kremer, owner of Dick's Bar and Grill in downtown Hudson. Business, he said, has increased nearly 15 percent since Minnesota's smoking ban took effect in October.

Over at St. Croix County's health department, tobacco-free specialist Geralyn Karl says the opposite is true: Wisconsin residents, in search of clean air, travel to Minnesota bars and restaurants.

While it's unclear how many people travel across the state line in search of a different environment, one thing is sure: In Wisconsin, there's a whiff of change in the air.

More businesses are going smoke-free and bordering states are banning smoking in bars and restaurants. Minnesota's ban began Oct. 1. Illinois approved a ban that will begin Jan. 1.

"We're locked in and not looking very good," said Karl, who directs the Pierce-St. Croix Tobacco-Free Coalition.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Doyle has endorsed a statewide smoking ban, and Wisconsin legislators are debating a bill that would ban smoking in all places of employment, including restaurants and taverns.

"I share what I believe is a common sentiment in western Wisconsin, which is the desire to be in smoke-free environments," said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls. "The question is, who should make the decision?"

Pete Foster, who owns two downtown Hudson establishments, the San Pedro Cafe and Barker's Bar and Grill, doesn't allow smoking in either place. Business at Barker's jumped more than 15 percent since going smoke-free three years ago, Foster said.

However, he says that individual bar owners should decide whether to allow smoking; and he opposes a smoking ban because he enjoys a competitive edge over businesses that allow it.

"We saw a niche in Hudson that wasn't being filled," he said.

Across the St. Croix River at The Bungalow in Lakeland, owner Bill Eisenmann said he's not aware of any customers who said they crossed the river to Minnesota for clean air. But more people come to eat on weekends since the smoking ban took effect, he said, and his bar business is holding steady.

"Overall, I think the diners are reacting positively and the smokers for the most part are understanding," said Eisenmann, whose business sits near the Interstate Hwy. 94 bridge to Hudson.

Karl said more and more businesses are prohibiting indoor smoking. The smoke-free coalition, she said, doesn't plan to wait for a state ban but instead wants business owners to guarantee clean air for customers and employees.

"It just makes good business sense from productivity to cleaning," she said, citing statistics that nonsmokers far outnumber those who light up. "Why is one-quarter [of the population] regulating the air that we breathe?"

And the cabin effect?

In Polk County, Wis., a popular destination for Twin Cities cabin dwellers, tobacco-control specialist Jennifer Swenson said that concern over smoking now extends to tourism. "For people wanting to buy vacation land, is the smoking going to be a deterrent knowing they come now from a smoke-free environment?" she said.

Several of the county's villages are debating whether to go smoke-free, and some people in St. Croix Falls cross the border into Taylors Falls to smoke-free restaurants, she said.

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