By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published May 28, 2010 at 4:40 PM
MINNEAPOLIS -- There are just a few weeks left before Milwaukee bars go smoke-free, but residents of the Twin Cities haven't been able to take a drag inside a bar for the last five years.

Individual smoking bans went into effect in Minneapolis and suburban Bloomington in 2005 while Minnesota followed with a statewide ban in 2007.

As in Milwaukee, supporters of the Minnesota ordinances called the ban a victory for public health while opponents raised concerns with government interference in private businesses and losses of jobs and revenue.

It's been half a decade, but the issue is still divisive in Minnesota.

"There are still a lof people, especially those who have been harmed financially, still upset," says Kenn Rockler of the Tavern League of Minnesota.

A former bar owner himself, Rockler quit smoking 18 years ago but lobbied against the ban on behalf of the state's bar and tavern owners, who were worried about taking a financial hit.

"It's important to note that not everybody got hurt," Rockler says. "If you listen to supporters, they'll say tax reciepts show no effect right now. But there are places that have struggled and a lot of places -- some that have been around for 40 or 50 years -- that had to close because of the ban." A study performed by the Minnesota Department of Health and Family Support and Minneapolis Regulatory Services Licensing Division examined revenues during six-month periods (April through September) over a three-year period leading up to and after the implementation of the smoking ban.

  Based upon sales tax revenue provided by the Minnesota Department of Revenue, the study surveyed 353 licensed establishments.


The study found that alcohol and food sales, on the whole, increased during the three-year periods. Sales increased by more than seven percent from 2004 to 2005, when the ban went into effect, though alcohol sales did slow somewhat after the ban.

The study also pointed out that the increases couldn't directly be tied to the ban.

"These findings do not directly address the question of whether the Indoor Smoking Ordinance had a beneficial or adverse economic impact on the local hospitality industry," the study says. "Many factors affect alcohol and food sales including the local economy, the weather, and the attractions offered by entertainment venues. The study also does not take into account inflation."

Critics of the study say that the city of Minneapolis "cherry picked" the 353 establishments from a total of 618 Minneapolis liquor licenses in order to minimize the ban's true impact.

Smaller bars and nightclubs, which don't offer food, noticed small drops in revenue while as many as 400 businesses in the Twin Cities metropolitan area have closed in the years since the ban went into effect.

"Places that served beer and pizza, those types of places, they made out alright," says Rockler. "But if you had a place that did a high percentage of alcoholic drinks, many of them were hurt severely ... losing anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their business."

One way of gauging the ban's effect was monitoring proceeds of pull-tab sales. Though not technically legal gambling, much like video slot machines in Wisconsin, pull-tabs are common in Minnesota bars.

Rockler says that areas where a local ban was already in place saw only a minimal drop in revenues while areas that went smoke-free under the state ban saw a dramatic drop.

"The tax reciepts where overwhelming," Rockler says.

Bar owners that saw even minimal gains in their overall revenue also needed to look at price increases during the implementaion period; some bars saw a decline in customers but an increase in sales after the ban.

Other bar owners, like Ryan Wentz, have managed to survive and prosper during the last few years.

Wentz's company, Premier Restaurant Management, owns a number of Twin Cities establishments including Major's Sports Café, which has four locations in the metro area, Stella's Fish Café in the Uptown neighborhood and Ciento Mexican Restaurant in Golden Valley.

"We lost business from people that didn't want to come out because they couldn't smoke but, in time, we noticed we were gaining business from new customers who weren't coming out before the ban," Wentz says.

Wentz has noticed gains and losses. From a health and comfort standpoint, he's seen noticeable improvement but knows that some bars were affected much more than others.

"I'm not enough of an expert to say it will go either way," says Wentz. "The ban will absolutely negatively effect some bars, and others may get a positive impact."

At the Mall of America, located in suburban Bloomington, an entire floor of nightclubs and bars closed as a result of the ban. There were issues with security and crowd control, but ultimately, the smoking ban brought an end to those establishments.

"It was the nail in the coffin," says Wentz, who previously managed one of those clubs. "It wasn't conducive for a smoking ban and those bars to coexist."

All of the Minnesota establishments feature outdoor patios, while Stella's has a rooftop deck. The decks were already in place before the ban, but many owners were faced with a decision on building and operating outdoor areas.

It's a new dynamic that Wisconsin bar owners will need to take into account when the ban kicks in here, says Wentz, whose company also operates Molly Cool's Seafood Tavern and Bootlegger's Bar and Grill on N. Old World 3rd St.

"If you didn't have a patio, you had to figure out if you could add one," Wentz says. "Those that had them, bar owners needed to decide if it was worth putting in heaters; did you want people to smoke as fast as they could and come back inside, or did you want to create a comfortable atmosphere for your smoking customers."

Security was also a concern.

"We had to make sure people were getting in and out safely and that alcohol was being handled properly," Wentz says.

One positive effect of the Minnesota ban has been higher retention rates for employees. Wentz has been able to keep more bartenders, wait and support staff because more employees like working in a non-smoking environment.

"People like their jobs better when they don't have to work around smoke," he says."

Aside from business, the ban has had a postive effect on health. The number of smokers in Minnesota has dropped from about 20 percent of the population when the ban went into effect to about 17 percent today, says Pat McKone of the Lung Association of Minnesota.

The ban hasn't had the death penalty impact on businesses there, she says. Many from Wisconsin have made it a point to cross the border to enjoy a smoke-free experience.

"Wisconsin, keep in mind, is not the first state to do this," says McKone. "Dozens have done this already and more will follow. This will improve health for employees and the population immediately. It's really a simple act of taking it outside. It's just that simple."