Statewide smoking ban hits snag at Capitol

Indoor smoking
A Senate committee approved a modified statewide smoking ban that would exempt bars that install ventilation systems. The bill was amended with a schedule giving bars deadlines for installing the systems.
Photo by Chris Furlong/Getty Images

The statewide smoking ban bill got hung up for more than a week in the Senate Business, Jobs and Industry Committee as DFL senators from northern Minnesota tried several ways to modify a bill they don't support. They're convinced small businesses will suffer under a statewide ban.

The committee rejected outright exemptions for bars and bingo halls. A proposed phase-in for bars until 2009 also failed. But the panel then decided to let bar owners off the hook if they install equipment to blow the cigarette smoke out of their businesses.

Sen. Kathy Sheran
Sen. Kathy Sheran
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, described his amendment as a good compromise. He says every bar would have a deadline for installing the air ventilation system, known as HVAC.

"If you have 40-percent gross sales in alcohol, you can get them in by June 1, 2009, 50 percent by June 1, 2010, etc. And it just says that we're going to clean the air up in these places with HVAC systems and we're actually going to test to make sure the places are being cleaned up," he said.

The amendment would also prevent local governments from imposing their own more-stringent requirements. That provision could loosen smoking restrictions already in place in some cities and counties.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, doesn't like taking away options from local governments, but he does like the ventilation option for bar owners that want to allow smoking.

"I didn't know if some of these smaller facilities would be able to afford it. But at least it should be an option to them if they could," he said.

Sen. Jim Metzen
Sen. Jim Metzen
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

But advocates of the smoking ban insist ventilation systems are not a sufficient protection from second-hand smoke.

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, showed her disappointment after the hearing. She said the newly modified version of the smoking ban would not protect public health.

"Even with ventilation systems, there is not any guarantee that the places where we share air will through ventilation be able to remove the particulates that create the issue of second-hand from the air. So I think that really challenges the underlying purpose of the bill," Sheran said. Sheran says the bill still has a long road ahead. She says other Senate committees could decide to remove the amendment. The next stop is the Local Government Operations Committee.

The House version of the smoking ban legislation is pending before that body's Commerce Committee, where a similar bill was defeated two years ago.

Gov. Pawlenty says he supports a ban, but would prefer exemptions for private clubs.

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