Milwaukee’s gay bar owners are bracing for a potential downturn in business when a statewide indoor smoking ban takes effect July 5. But they’re also looking at the bright side.
“I won’t have to clean the bar as hard,” says Kruz owner Jerry Breiling. “It will be one less thing I have to do every month – washing all those walls down. The environment will be nice.”
Breiling also hopes the absence of smoke will reduce the frequency with which he has to clean the bar’s air-conditioning filter – currently once every three days. And Breiling, like owners of other bars with patios, hopes he can mitigate any loss of business from smokers by offering them an outdoor space to indulge.
In addition, Breiling hopes that the ban “will help me quit.”
But bar owners’ concerns about falling revenue in the wake of the smoking ban appear to be well-founded. The United Restaurant & Tavern Owners of New York Inc., for example, found that 76 percent of New York City bars and nightclubs experienced a 30-percent decrease in customers during the year after that city enacted a ban in 2003. A year after Iowa’s smoking ban went into effect in 2008, the Quad City Times reported statistics suggesting that more people were chosing to drink at home rather than bars in Scott County. Liquor store sales there rose by 16.8 percent over the next year, while new liquor licenses in the county dropped sharply. It was unclear, however, whether the differences resulted from the ban or the economic downturn.
Anecdotal evidence from cities such as Chicago, however, suggests that the impact of smoking bans on gay bars is temporary. Dave Eick, a bartender at Madison’s Club 5 for six years, says his employer’s revenues fell “a little” immediately after that city adopted a smoking ban but then rebounded after “a period of adjustment.”
Wisconsin’s smoking ban has inspired nothing resembling the outcry that met similar laws in Chicago and New York. Breiling says that’s because the bans have become so common throughout the country that people are accepting it with a feeling of inevitability. “Anyone who travels knows you can’t smoke in half the places,” he says.
“People so far seem to be acting in denial, like they don’t really seem to grasp that this is going to take effect very soon,” says Harbor Room owner Gregg Fitzpatrick. “The non-smokers seem to be much more aware of it than the smokers.”
Joe Brehm, owner of This Is It, says his only objection to the ban is that it contains loopholes for casinos, which he says presents a competitive advantage for those establishments.
“It’s a disgraceful thing,” Brehm says. “All of the citizens of the state of Wisconsin that are in the tavern business and work hard to make a living at it don’t get the same break as the casinos, and that’s just not right.”
Partly in anticipation of the ban, Nate Fried and Bill Lison decided to prohibit smoking from the outset when they opened Hybrid Lounge on March 9. “I was a little leery about it deterring people, but that fear went away within the first week of opening the doors,” Lison says. “We get a lot of priase from people thanking us, even from smokers.”
“It’s amazing how many of our customers mention that they can leave the bar and go home and not smell like smoke,” Fried says. “That’s been a big part of our initial success, I feel.”
But Lison says he believes the decision to go smoke-free should have been left up to individual business owners.
Supporters of the ban say it will help reduce the hazards of second-hand smoke inhalation and encourage more people to quit. According to the 2010 Burden of Tobacco Report, Milwaukee loses 730 people annually to smoking-related deaths, which amounts to 15 percent of the city’s overall fatalities. The impact is even greater in the LGBT community, which has a smoking rate that’s nearly double that of the general population, according to the Milwaukee-based group Diverse and Resilient (D&R).
Two years ago, D&R launched rm2breathe, a comprehensive statewide program designed to reduce smoking in the LGBT community. Through statewide partner organizations, rm2breathe promotes awareness of the problem of smoking in the LGBT community and offers information and support services to those who want to quit.
“We have three health promoters in Madison who go to bars and clubs and talk to people about the program and tell them about the ‘quit groups,’ says Steve Starkey, executive director of Outreach LGBT Community Center in Madison, which is a partner in the program.
The quit groups meet weekly for seven weeks and undergo an intensive process of learning about the dangers of smoking and techniques for quitting. Then participants all quit together and provide each other with ongoing encouragement through a buddy system.
Starkey says Milwaukee’s gay bar owners should ignore the dire predictions about the impact of the smoking ban on their bottom line. He says the impact on Madison’s bars don’t appear to have been nearly as drastic as feared.
“But it’s had a big effect on the air quality in public places,” Starkey says. “Now you can go to a bar and feel like you don’t have to burn your clothes when you go home.”