Beltrami County goes smoke free, supporters push for statewide ban

A smoker's drag
Dave Isaacson braves the cold for a smoke outside the Corner Bar in Bemidji. As of Jan. 1, all bars, restaurants, hotels and other indoor public places in Beltrami County are smoke free. Some are pushing for a statewide smoking ban this year.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Bars and restaurants in Beltrami County eased into the smoking ban. All last year, smoking was prohibited during the day, but people could still light up after 8 p.m. That exemption expired Monday so smokers now have no choice but to take it outside.

Steve Carter
Steve Carter is owner of the Corner Bar on Bemidji's south side. Carter says his business dropped off 30 percent since a partial ban took effect last year. He worries more customers will stay away now that Beltrami County's smoking ban is in full force.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I think it will hurt quite a bit. It has already," said Steve Carter, who owns a neighborhood bar on Bemidji's south side.

Carter says his business dropped off 30 percent since the first phase of the ban. He expects things will get worse. Carter says his smoking customers like to light up when they drink. He says people who go to a bar expect and accept that.

"I think it's kind of like going to a NASCAR race and complaining about how loud the cars are," Carter said. "When you go there, you know what you're getting."

Carter says his bar is a privately owned business and he should be able to set the rules without government interference. But Beltrami County commissioners decided public health and the rights of employees trump that.

Beltrami is among six Minnesota counties and about a dozen cities that have smoking ban policies.

"People that don't want to work in a smoking establishment don't have to take a job there. Nobody is forcing anybody to enter an establishment that allows smoking."

The effects of second-hand smoke are well documented. Health organizations say second-hand smoke kills thousands of people annually. The U.S. Surgeon General concluded in a report last summer that even brief exposure is a health hazard.

Dawn Eve knows the dangers all too well. Eve is a third-generation bar owner who runs a night club north of Bemidji. Eve says she's had chronic respiratory problems due to second-hand smoke. About a year ago, Eve's doctor gave her a dire warning.

"Just that it's up to me whether I want to live or die, keep my business or make it non-smoking," said Eve. "I was at the point where I had reoccurring lung infections and I have black spots on my lungs, to the point where I could no longer blow my wind instruments, the harmonica or the flute."

Eve says she's back to playing her instruments. She made her night club smoke free more than a year before the county ordinance required. Eve says the club's revenues dropped by more than half at first. But customers eventually returned. Eve says business is now better than ever.

"I upset quite a few people," she said. "Some of them I thought were my very dear friends, but I haven't seen them since then. And it took awhile, but now people are thanking me for it."

The smoking ban debate has gone on for years across the country. Ohio, Nevada and Arizona passed comprehensive smoking bans last November. In all, 17 states now prohibit smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places.

Efforts in Minnesota have failed in the past. But lawmakers say with a new DFL majority in the Legislature, the chances are better than ever. State Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, is chief author of the Freedom to Breathe bill in the House. Huntley says the last election brought a lot of new faces to the Capitol.

Jammers Blue Note Ballroom owner Dawn Eve says years of inhaling second hand smoke made her sick. Her health has improved since she voluntarily made the club smoke free more than a year ago. She says business suffered at first, but is now better than ever.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"A lot of the people that were opposed to it are no longer there, some Republicans, some Democrats I will say," said Huntley. "But in general, you can also look at the percentage of women. Women tend to be more anti-smoking than males. And the number of women legislators has risen dramatically in this election."

Some lawmakers remain staunchly opposed to a smoking ban. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, says a ban would hurt bar and restaurant owners, especially those in communities bordering states that allow smoking. Holberg says the debate is all about personal freedom.

"People that don't want to work in a smoking establishment don't have to take a job there," said Holberg. "Nobody is forcing anybody to enter an establishment that allows smoking. They're all privately owned facilities that the investment has been made by a private property owner and they should have some rights on that property."

Supporters of a statewide smoking ban plan to rally at the Capitol on Jan. 30. If the Legislature passes a ban this session, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he would sign it into law.

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