State lawmakers began restricting the locations smokers can light up more than 30 years ago when they passed the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act. Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, says this year's Freedom to Breathe Act will complete the work begun in 1975.
"This act basically protects all employees from having to breathe somebody else's smoke. So, I think it's a big step and a big advance for the state," Huntley says.
Huntley and other supporters of the ban say bar and restaurant employees deserve the same health protections enjoyed by other workers. He says their health is currently at risk from exposure to secondhand smoke.
"The statistics would indicate that about 580 people in Minnesota die every year from secondhand smoke, not primary smoke but secondhand smoke. So, this will protect everybody in the workplace," Huntley says.
Huntley and the other conference committee members did exempt a few workplaces including tobacco shops, the cabs of commercial trucks, scientific studies and Native American ceremonies.
But lawmakers removed provisions that would have let stage actors, farm hands and private club members light up cigarettes. They also scrapped a provision in the House bill allowing for ventilated smoking rooms. The conference committee also ditched the Senate's plan to allow outdoor smoking patios, leaving that issue for local governments to decide. Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, is pleased the bill is back to its original form.
"I think it's been beaten up. It's been reviewed. Everybody had a long time to have their perspective heard in various committees in both the House and the Senate. And for it to go through that process and wind its way back to the conference committee and end up in its current form I think is an indication that it was a pretty good bill," she says.
Both Democrats and Republicans support the statewide smoking ban. Opposition to the bill is also bipartisan. Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, has been one of the most vocal critics. He still argues against including bars in the ban.
"Because the bars that I go into up on the Iron Range and in Northern Minnesota in general after 8:00 at night, 75 percent of the people in there are smokers and the other 25 percent don't care. And for these people on their mission, their crusade, to shove this down everyone's throat to me is disgusting," says Rukavina.
Rukavina is predicting a close vote in the House, where lawmakers provided more exemptions to the ban. Rukavina wants the bill sent back to the conference committee for some changes.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has often said he would sign into law a reasonable statewide smoking ban. The Republican governor had not yet seen details of the conference committee agreement, but he sounded like he was ready to support it.
"The society is moving away from smoking, and we need to do all we can to discourage smoking but also to try to protect people who don't smoke. Secondhand smoke is a real issue. It's really a concern. And I think a smoking ban is a reasonable step to try to promote public health, particularly not just the public but the people who work in these establishments," Pawlenty says.
Final passage in the House and Senate is still needed before Pawlenty gets his hands on the bill. Those floor votes could come later this week. If the measure becomes law, the statewide smoking ban would take effect August 1st.