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Minnesota smokers deal with new Wisconsin smoking ban

HAGER CITY - Beginning Tuesday, Minnesota smokers can no longer use Wisconsin as their ash tray.

The Badger State smoking ban brings to an end the opportunity for smokers in Minnesota border communities like Red Wing to skip across the border for a cigarette inside a tavern.

Count Roger Blanchard among those who seek a smokers' sanctuary in Wisconsin. The Red Wing man said he likes to have a cigarette while enjoying a cold beer at a bar.

"It's nice," Blanchard said.

The advent of smokeless Wisconsin bars will change that, he said.

"There's no smoking bans in my house," Blanchard said.

Woodshed Bar employee Gary Thom figures the ban will cause some smokers to shy away from hitting the bar scene - at least initially.

But he and others see smoke-free bars drawing new faces.

Brad Smith, owner of the Harbor Bar, said he knows countless diners have turned away from eating at his riverside establishment during the winter. They didn't want their meal with a side of cigarette plumes, he said.

"We definitely are looking forward to the smoking bill for the restaurant side of the bar," Smith said. "Hopefully that will make up for any loss of drink sales."

Still, it's been a hard pill for him to swallow. While he welcomes the possibilities of a smokeless bar, he shudders at what he considers government intrusion.

"The free market system should have driven this - not government regulations," Smith said.

He doesn't argue with lawmakers' logic behind the bill, which aims to protect tavern workers' health. But people have a choice of where they want to work, Smith said.

"All the workers knew there was smoke here when they took the job," he said. "You work on a river boat, you might worry about falling into the river. All jobs have risks."

While the impact of the ban is yet to be determined, some Wisconsin bars are planning to accommodate smokers, just as many Minnesota taverns did after that ban took effect in 2008.

Thom said that will mean a new outdoor structure at the Woodshed, Thom said. The structure will likely include heating units for cold months, he said.

Smith said the Harbor, which already has an extensive outdoor section, won't have to make changes to the bar, apart from installing heat units outside.

"We've got all summer to prepare for that," he said.

Meanwhile, he'll be watching to see how other area bars weather the big change. Smith, whose customer base is comprised mostly of nearby Red Wingites and tourists, suspects more isolated bars will struggle.

"I think the small ma-and-pop taverns that don't sell food are going to suffer," Smith said. "If they're not selling food now, they probably should."