Steve O'Neil has been an anti-smoking crusader for years. For O'Neil, it's a personal fight.
"I was very close to these two uncles," O'Neil says. "One of them was my godfather. One died in his mid-40s. The other died in his early 50s. So, watching them die a very painful death related to tobacco really had an early impact on me."
More recently, O'Neil was the American Lung Association's point man in Duluth to stop kids from smoking. Now he's a St. Louis County Commissioner. His first ordinance: a county-wide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, intended to protect employees from customer's second hand smoke.
"You know, this is a very serious issue for a lot of people in this industry: this hospitality industry," O'Neil says. "And waiting, with a possible hope that they might do it next year, just does not make sense anymore."
We want you to pass a statewide law that is consistent with this, so we don't have this patchwork.Steven O'Neil
But it looks like smoking in restaurants is going to be legal in St. Louis County a while longer.
Most of the commissioners want to wait, hoping for a bill stuck in the state legislature to make it to law. But O'Neil says there's been little will in the legislature.
"I felt, and I still feel, that the best way for us to send a message to the state legislature is to pass an ordinance," says O'Neil. "And with it, say 'And we want you to pass a statewide law that is consistent with this, so we don't have this patchwork,'"
The patchwork comes from laws now on the books in many Minnesota cities and counties. Combined, about a third of the state's residents are covered by some kind of ban in restaurants or bars. But the local laws vary from community to community. There's little consistency, according to St. Louis County Commission Chair Keith Nelson.
"People have every right to expect that their laws are going to be consistent from one side of the street to the other or from one community to the other," Nelson says.
Nelson's in favor of a smoking ban in restaurants, but he hedges on pushing smokers from bars or private clubs. Bar owners, in particular, worry about losing customers who smoke, although health advocates says some bars have done better without smoking. Nelson says it's something that should be taken up statewide.
The so-called "Freedom To Breathe Act" cleared the Minnesota Senate, but died last year in the House Commerce Committee. Republican Doug Meslow, of White Bear Lake, says he's hoping to raise the ban again this spring, despite a short session intended for a bonding bill.
With his bill stuck in the legislature, the push to go non-smoking has been coming from counties. There are five county-wide bans in place including Hennepin and Ramsey counties. And the driving force is coming from county residents, rather than health activists, according to Pat McKone, with American Lung Association in Duluth.
"Crow Wing County," says Mckone. "You know, there was a county I was not involved with. None of the typical, you know, American Lung, Heart or Cancer. It came up from a group of people who approached the county advisory board."
McKone knows of five more counties considering smoking restrictions, including Lake County, which borders St. Louis to the east.
"There's a good example," McKone says. "Lake County had members of their Health Advisory Committee, which are citizen appointees, that said 'hey, Duluth went smoke free. We like this idea. Why can't we do this in our county?'"
Bradley Sagen of Ely chairs the Lake County Citizens Health Advisory committee.
"We had discussions indeed with some elected officials who said, 'well let's wait and see what the state does,' Sagen says. "And I think we waited through a session at least a year ago. And of course nothing happened. And, indeed, the outcome of that was such that it certainly shouldn't give anyone any hope in the near future, say the current session, that anything's going to occur at the state level."
Sagen expects public meetings this spring to find what Lake County residents want in a ban.
Meanwhile, St. Louis County Commissioners will seek a joint resolution from area counties to push lawmakers on a statewide bill. If that doesn't work, St. Louis County is expected to revisit a county wide ban next year.