State Sen. Fred Risser has been fighting against cigarettes for more than 50 years.
The veteran Madison Democrat remembers the first bill he introduced on the subject, in 1963, proposed barring children under the age of 16 from buying smokes. It failed in committee, 4-1, with Risser casting the only vote in favor.
“I remember people saying, ‘Why should we outlaw a kid from going to the store to pick up some cigarettes for papa?’” he recalls.
In 1999, he successfully pushed to bar smoking in the state Capitol. And in 2010, an effort he led to ban smoking in indoor public places was implemented, much to the chagrin of the state’s powerful tavern industry.
At the time of the statewide ban’s implementation, most Republicans, including then-gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, were publicly opposed to the new regulation. Walker promised he would work to repeal the law if elected governor.
And yet, shortly after being elected, Walker, despite presiding over comfortable Republican majorities in the Legislature, reversed his stance on the issue, saying the smoking ban “works.”
It seemed that, despite many conservatives’ philosophical opposition to imposing such restrictions on private business owners, few politicians were willing to wage a battle on behalf of the dangerous and increasingly-stigmatized habit.
Now Risser is concerned that the state is taking a step backwards in its fight against tobacco use. A Senate committee recently approved a bill that exempts electronic cigarettes from the state indoor smoking ban. E-cigarettes, which are now being marketed as a method to wean people off of traditional cigarettes, work by vaporizing a liquid mix of nicotine and other substances, such as flavoring, so that smokers inhale and exhale a vapor rather than smoke.
E-cigarettes have met a mixed response nationally. Some cities, including New York City and Philadelphia, have already made moves to ban them in public places and the Green Bay school district recently banned them from school grounds.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, the chief author of the bill, says the point of the legislation is to prevent municipalities from imposing bans on the increasingly popular smoking devices.
It’s another one of many recent bills that Republicans have backed that strip regulatory control from local governments, but Grothman says he is just trying to “protect freedom from the irrational prejudices that may pop into the heads of local officials.”
Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League, which backs the bill, says he doesn’t understand why anybody would want to ban e-cigarettes in bars.
“All the arguments for the smoking ban don’t apply to e-cigarettes,” he says, referring to second-hand smoke.
If anything, he argues, the presence of e-cigarettes in bars symbolize the success of the anti-smoking movement.
“For the proponents of a smoking ban, this is what victory looks like,” he says.
Risser hardly sees e-cigarettes as evidence of success and he bristles at the suggestion that the new devices are as innocuous as Grothman suggests they are.
“They are proven to emit dangerous chemicals,” he says. The bill "unwisely sends the message that maybe they’re not harmful.”
He also believes the bill is an underhanded way for the tobacco industry to reverse the decline in smoking in recent decades.
The interest groups that have registered in support of the bill include RAI Services, formerly known as Reynolds American, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world.
"It’s nothing more than an effort to increase consumers of smoking," Risser says. "They're trying to glamorize the idea of smoking to youth."
Mark Grapentine, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Medical Society, which opposes the bill along with many other health groups, echoes many of Risser’s concerns, saying the state should be reluctant to give what he says is an implicit endorsement of a practice that has been subject to very little medical scrutiny.
“Who’s in charge of saying that the juice you’re putting in your e-cig isn’t filled with God-knows-what,” he asks. “Is there any possibility that that exhalant is getting into the lungs of somebody nearby whether they know it or not?”
The bill’s chances of eventually becoming law remain unclear. Neither house of the state Legislature has announced plans to act on the bill in the waning days of the legislative session this spring. Furthermore, the three Senate Republicans who voted for the bill in committee — Grothman, Leah Vukmir of Wauwatosa and Paul Farrow of Brookfield — are all very conservative members from solidly Republican districts whose position may not reflect the position of the Republican leadership, including the governor.
Grothman concedes that it isn't easy to appear supportive of smoking in any way these days, suggesting that many Republicans who were hostile to the idea of the smoking ban in past years have had to yield to political reality.
“The smoking ban is popular,” he says.
Still, it can't hurt the bill's cause that Johnson Creek Enterprises, a company that makes "smoke juice" for e-cigarettes, has hired former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, brother of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, to lobby for the exemption.