Michigan Bar Owners Bounce Lawmakers to Protest Smoking Ban

Some days, politicians could use a drink. But lawmakers in Michigan may soon find it harder to get one.

Hundreds of bar owners in the Great Lakes State plan to deprive lawmakers of their hospitality by banning them from their establishments in protest of the state's smoking ban.

A new group, Protect Private Property Rights in Michigan, claims it has more than 500 bar owners statewide pledging to blacklist almost every lawmaker. The idea is to persuade the Legislature to at least revisit the ban, which went into effect last year.

"We're going to have to remind Lansing that our bars are in fact private property, so therefore they are now persona non grata as of Sept. 1," said Stephen Mace, director of the group and a bar worker himself.

How effective the ban is could depend on how much Michigan's lawmakers cherish their local watering holes. Mace said the primary goal is to get a discussion started again in the capital -- he said many of the Republican candidates who swept into office last November were opposed to the ban but haven't done much to address it since their swearing-in.

"The bar owners and workers felt they were being ignored by the new Legislature," Mace said.

Mace said businesses and the government have lost millions of dollars as a result of the smoking ban, which applied to most businesses across the state when it went into effect on May 1, 2010. Mace claimed that "in excess of 100" small bars closed down in the first year as a result of the ban.

According to the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, overall sales at bars and restaurants were down about 20 percent between May and July of last year after holding steady in the months before the ban. Sales of alcohol, food and lotto tickets all fell -- the drop-off in revenue was more pronounced among smaller establishments.

However, the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association was not thrilled with Mace's latest idea. While the group opposes the smoking ban, spokesman Peter Broderick said there are better ways to voice the industry's frustration than by banning lawmakers.

"It could only hurt you to alienate your legislators," Broderick said. "We'd rather have people invite our legislators in for a burger and a beer and talk about it."

A handful of proposals are floating around the state capital to modify the ban, including one that would allow for special smoking rooms.

A spokeswoman with the American Cancer Society, which fought hard for the ban, said it would oppose any move to revise the bill.

"Any attempt to open it up is an attempt to undo it altogether," spokeswoman Judy Stewart said.

Supporters of the smoking ban pushed it as a way to cut down on secondhand smoke and improve the health of Michigan residents. Stewart claimed about 1,500 people in Michigan die every year due to secondhand smoke exposure and that the ban will reduce the chronic diseases associated with that.

Mace said his group is not pro-tobacco, but the reality is the ban is hurting business, and bar owners should have the right to make their own decisions about allowing smokers.

He said his group's ban on lawmakers will have exemptions, just like the law does for casinos. He said rank-and-file lawmakers will be banned, but the head honchos -- the governor, lieutenant governor and top members of the House and Senate -- will still be allowed.

"In the way that the smoking ban exempted the casinos ... the big guys get looked after," Mace said.