In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle important city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Matt Wild: On July 4, the United States will celebrate the anniversary of its independence. On July 5, depending on who you talk to, Wisconsin will celebrate either the anniversary of its independence from the dangers of second-hand smoke, or the day when all our freedoms were tossed aside and ground into the dirt like so many filtered butts. Yes, four years ago on July 5, 2010, Wisconsin adopted a statewide indoor smoking ban. No longer could degenerate smokers exhale their poisoned fumes in the faces of doe-eyed children while waiting in line for the buffet at Ponderosa. No longer could tar-sucking addicts endanger the lives of their fellow bar-goers during another night of totally-good-for-you binge drinking. It was the beginning of a bright and glorious future, one where no one got sick, no one got older, and no one ever died. And no one had to worry about their pants smelling like smoke in the morning.
I’m kidding, of course. The smoking ban was/is great. It’s so great, in fact, that I haven’t given it much thought in the past few years, even though it has cruelly forced smokers like myself to occasionally put down our drinks and step outside for five minutes. (To my parents: I’ve been cutting back, and I’ll hopefully be smoke-free by the end of the summer!) It was only while walking around the Summerfest grounds recently that I was reminded of the ban: turns out, people really, really like to smoke there. Even OnMilwaukee’s Dave Begel took time out from scoping those broads and their sexy stems to notice (and condemn) the amount of smokers prowling the Summerfest grounds.
Personally, briefly passing a person working on a butt or sucking one of those stupid cigars doesn’t bother me, especially in an area as big as Summerfest. But before we get into this any further, I’m curious to hear what you think of the four-year-old ban, Tyler. I know you’re a non-smoker, so I assume you’re happy with it? What about outdoor smoking? What about Summerfest smoking? What about the children?
Tyler Maas: As I assume most people are, yes, I’m happy the ban was instituted. More than anything, though, I’m happy it’s a statewide ban. When I turned 21, I was living in the Fox Cities. Appleton had already passed the workplace smoking ban in 2005. Meanwhile, every other nearby city, town, and one-bar hole in the Earth still permitted smoking. The lack of legislative unification actually caused a few Appleton businesses to close, as stubborn smokers fled to establishments outside city limits. Since I’ve never been a smoker, I wasn’t part of that anti-ban Appleton exodus. However, aside from not liking how my clothing and skin smelled the next day, I also didn’t take much umbrage with there being smoking in public places.
So when I moved here roughly a year before the statewide ban, I already had a good idea of the response in store, as well as the fact that this really wasn’t a big deal. Of course, there was the first wave of outrage from the “If I can’t have my smokes, then I’ll just…” crowd. Except, unlike the previous smoke-free ordinances in Appleton and Eau Claire, those people had no logical nearby alternative to turn when they wanted to combine their nicotine and nightlife. That July 5, the playing field was level and no businesses were left to rot while taverns a town over flourished—which was great. Excluding businesses that utilized the loophole to become private clubs requiring paid membership, or places trying to pass puffing ’grits as “performance art,” people who simply needed to smoke while dining and drinking were forced to do so at home.
Have you ever gotten drunk at home? It’s less fun, kind of sad, and I should probably think about doing it less. Whether it took days, a week, or a month, even the most butthurt smokers meekly returned to their favorite restaurants and watering holes—favoring briefly shivering outside to smoking in solitude (or being part of some pathetic club built on the foundation of liberty to shorten lives of strangers on the bar stool next to you).
So, in my opinion, beyond the initial bucking from a vocal minority, the statewide smoking ban hasn’t really changed business too much in town. The dollars lost by those spurned by the ban were likely immediately replaced by people who wanted to give a place a second chance now that there wasn’t a cloud of carcinogen hanging in the air. If anything, one traceable byproduct is the advent of patios in Milwaukee. Tons of new establishments took the need for a smoker’s refuge into account; existing places with the means and space added patios to their properties, and a bunch of other publications get to dust off the same old “Milwaukee’s Best Patios” listicle every spring. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a win-win-draw.
Of course, as a non-smoker who was only subjected to the numerous positives of this, I might be a tad biased. You’re the one forced (by addiction, but still) to hunker down outside in sub-zero temps or take solace in some strange pocket on the 400 level of Miller Park, Matt. Is there anything you miss from the good old days? Are there any other positives we haven’t mentioned yet? And do those positives outweigh the negatives?
Matt: Back when the ban was imminent in the early summer of 2010, I did a crosstalk similar to this one at A.V. Club Milwaukee (remember that thing?) with then-editor Steve Hyden. I put up some half-assed argument about how the ban would chip away at some of Wisconsin’s blue-collar “character,” and how we’d all soon be a bunch of yuppie nimrods nattering on about family-friendly bike paths and our favorite places to eat brunch. Happily, Hyden called me out on my bullshit. (Though the jury’s still out on that last part…)
Which is to say, no, I don’t miss much from the “good old days” of smoking in public places. Sure, there’s a part of me that still pines for the days when my friends and I would hang out in that dingy smokers lounge at the airport; and yes, I think the Landmark somehow smelled better before the ban. (Anyone else? Just me?) But that’s about as far as my nicotine-flavored nostalgia goes. Not being subjected to someone’s nasty habit while hanging out indoors is a good thing.
Not being subjected to someone’s nasty habit while outdoors, however, is another story. Outdoor smoking bans in the U.S. have doubled in the past five years, and more are sprouting up as we speak. I don’t know about you, but that seems kind of nuts to me. I mean…come on. The evidence of outdoor secondhand smoke causing any sort of real harm is flimsy at best, and smoking bans in public parks and beaches seem more about the smokers than the smoke. With that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if a festival ground like Summerfest goes entirely smoke-free in the next few years. Pity the $11 cigarette stands and the surly teens who run them. Oh, and the whole vape crowd, which is something I’ll freely admit I don’t understand.
But maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t know. Smoking is dumb and gross, after all. What do you think, Tyler? Are you looking forward to a day when all forms of public smoking are prohibited in Wisconsin?
Tyler: You’d think I’d be all for outdoor bans, but I’m actually not a fan whatsoever. The indoor ordinances were brought in to provide people with a healthy place to work. With the same principle of allowing workers the right to breathe clean air, I feel smokers should retain the freedom to exhale fumes in the great outdoors. If the reason is to curb littered butts, it’s not going to happen. It’s illegal to drink on the streets and in public parks, but how many empty New Amsterdam bottles and Natty Ice cans do you see on sidewalks and on parcels of matted publicly owned grass? If the aim is to end smoking, good fucking luck with that. If shelling out close to $10 for a package of something imprinted with a warning that it will kill you (and heartbreaking public service commercials featuring a now-deceased woman gurgling a final urge to avoid buying the product that left her in that condition) isn’t enough to stop people from lighting up, some hard-to-enforce law surely won’t.
As far as a potential Summerfest smoking ban is concerned, maybe it will happen someday, but the already too-thin workforce tasked with patrolling the grounds to stop fights, underage drinking, and vandalism (all of which still happen with regularity) has more important shit to worry about than Timmy trying his first Swisher Sweet on the Sky Glider. We non-smokers have the indoors, so why not let smokers have a small personal bubble-sized radius of the outdoors. If you don’t like it, take two steps away. Smoker or not, I think most of us can now agree that Milwaukee restaurants and bars got a lot better four years ago. May they stay like this for years to come. And don’t even think about outlawing pull tabs!