A proposed statewide ban on smoking in all bars, restaurants and work sites has cleared its first committee in the Minnesota House.
Members of the House Health and Human Services Committee approved the bill Thursday on a 12-to-6 vote. The measure, known as the Freedom to Breathe Act of 2007, now goes to the House Commerce Committee, where a similar bill was defeated two years ago.
Lawmakers heard an hour of testimony, divided equally among supporters and opponents. Supporters contend the ban will protect bar and restaurant employees from the health hazards of second-hand smoke. They also believe it will create a level playing field for businesses across the state.
Currently about 40 percent of the state's population is covered by city or county smoking bans.
Pat McKone, of the Minnesota Smoke Free Coalition, said voters have supported smoking bans throughout the country.
"We know for sure that when the policy passes support for this continues to grow," McKone said. "We know no one is asking for smoking back on airlines or movie theaters or schools. That just doesn't happen."
Under the bill, Indian casinos and other facilities on tribal lands would be exempt. Governor Pawlenty supports the ban, but would prefer an exemption for private clubs, such as American Legions and VFWs.
Opponents argue a ban infringes on civil liberties and will hurt small business owners.
Sue Jeffers, a Minneapolis bar owner and longtime opponent of smoking bans, told lawmakers that she's seen over 100 business close because of smoking restrictions. She doesn't buy the level playing field argument.
"I wouldn't want this heart break and disaster on all these small businesses across the whole entire state of Minnesota," Jeffers said. "This is wrong people. You have to give them a choice."
Some opponents sounded resigned to a smoking ban passing in some form this year. A representative of a suburban American Legion asked legislators for a private-club exemption, and the president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association suggested tax breaks for businesses affected by the bill.