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Is Wisconsin next state to ban smoking in the workplace?

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SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) -- It's quitting time here in this Madison suburb, and McGovern's Club and Restaurant is filling with customers. The bar rings with laughter, the drinks are flowing and the cigarettes are flaring.

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But this scene soon could be history.

After months of trying, Wisconsin lawmakers are poised this week to pass a statewide ban on smoking in any workplace, including bars and restaurants. Twenty-five other states already have gone smoke-free, but the ban would mark a sea change for hard-partying Wisconsin, where beer and cigarettes go together like cows and hay.

The state's powerful tavern lobby fears the ban will keep so many people home that taverns, particularly small-time, backroad bars, might vanish. Supporters, including bar owners themselves, acknowledge some taverns might lose smokers, but they could gain nonsmokers and the state's air will be cleaner.

And don't ever underestimate the draw of booze in this state to keep taverns in business.

"No matter how bad it is, people find a way to drink," said Tyler Paul, 24, as he sat smoking a cigarette and drinking a Rolling Rock beer at McGovern's.

Liberal-leaning Madison ignited the debate in Wisconsin in 2004 when city leaders banned smoking in all taverns and restaurants. A dozen other local governments have followed suit, creating a patchwork of ordinances.

Supporters tried to push a statewide ban through the Legislature last spring, but neither the Republican-controlled Assembly nor the Democrat-controlled Senate ever voted on a plan. Democrats gained control of the Assembly after last November's elections, however, setting the stage for passage.

Last week, tavern league lobbyists, smoke-free advocates and lawmakers banged out a compromise. The new bill would end smoking in all workplaces. Smokers would face fines of up to $250. Bar owners who don't try to stop smokers would get a warning and a $100 fine for a second offense.

Local governments couldn't pass any regulations stricter than the statewide ban except on their own property. The ban also wouldn't take effect until July 2010, giving bars time to prepare.

"We feel good about where we are," said Eric Schutt, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society. "Our priority in all of this was to protect indoor air."

Pete Madland, the tavern league's executive director, said a uniform ban statewide would help taverns compete. But fears the ban still could wreck bars' business, he said.

"You're going to have an element of people who ... will not give up the cigarette to go to the bar," Madland said. When you pile that on the economy and the anti-alcohol environment out there, it piles on a negative effect to businesses that are already suffering."

A March 2009 report by Indiana University's Center for Health Policy found that 47 of 49 studies concluded smoke-free regulations hadn't hurt the hospitality industry.

In Minnesota, liquor tax revenue increased from $221.8 million in 2007, when that state's smoking ban took effect, to $231.2 million in 2008, according to data the American Cancer Society cites from the Minnesota Department of Revenue. Madison has added 23 liquor licenses since 2005, when the city's ban went into effect.

"The reality is it hasn't been the end of the world for anybody," said Ed Lump, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Lisa Wolkerstorfer, a waitress and manager at Brine's Restaurant and Bar in Stillwater, Minn., said Wisconsin tavern owners shouldn't panic.

The government shouldn't tell businesses what to do, she said, but Minnesota's smoking ban hasn't had much impact on business. The restaurant portion of the establishment, in fact, has seen more family business, she said.

"People will want to go out regardless of whether they smoke or don't smoke," she said.

Denise Pitzo co-owns Polecat and Lace, a Minocqua bar and restaurant. She said the establishment went smoke-free six years ago because it was losing nonsmokers' business.

"Those (smokers) who left us, 95 percent of them came back," she said.

Grant McGovern owns McGovern's in Sun Prairie. He said he might wind up with more customers looking for smoke-free dining.

"At first you're going to have some resistance. They're going to vote with their dollars. You might see a decrease in bar business, but that might be offset by beverage and food sales," he said.

Steve Stienmetz, 22, sat in McGovern's with Tyler Paul, drinking a Rolling Rock. He doesn't smoke, but he tends bar in Baraboo. He said smoke there hurts his eyes and makes him stink.

He doesn't think bar business will suffer from the ban.

"People aren't going to stop drinking," he said.

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