'Last call' for smokers

In the saloon
Bullwinkle Saloon on Washington Street in Minneapolis lost business when Hennepin County enacted a ban and smoking was still permitted in most bars in St. Paul. Business rebounded when St. Paul also banned smoking.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Starting October 1, the "Freedom to Breathe Act" means no smoking in bars, restaurants and bingo halls statewide. This makes Minnesota the 20th state to enact a statewide ban. Smokers and restaurant and bar owners could be fined up to $300 for violations.

"Chris" is a smoker who plans to do exactly what the bar and restaurant industry has been warning about. He wouldn't give his last name, but he says he lives in Wisconsin, near the border, and hangs out in Minnesota a lot. He says the ban will keep him in Wisconsin for a drink.

"I'd go up north where you can smoke in the bar and enjoy yourself," he said. Inside or outside -- if it's 30 below, you don't want to go outside and have a cigarette.

The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association says the ban will narrow already slender profit margins for bars.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Some bars and restaurants in Minnesota have already experienced a loss of profit because of local smoking bans.

Dario Anselmo, who owns the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, says his club lost significant revenue during the first year of Hennepin County's smoking ban. He says the number of customers hasn't changed, but people drink less.

"People are going outside in some pretty good numbers to smoke, which is good for the people inside, but in doing that they are not inside having a drink, which is primarily how we receive our revenue," says Anselmo.

Anselmo says he supports the ban for its benefits to public health. But he says lawmakers are too cavalier about the loss of revenue the industry will likely experience.

Not everyone expects to lose sales.

Bartender Evan Bolden, who manages the Bullwinkle Saloon on Washington Street in Minneapolis, says his bar lost business when Hennepin County enacted a ban and smoking was still permitted in most bars in nearby St. Paul. When Saint Paul leveled the playing field with a stiffer law, business rebounded.

"You lose two smokers, but we've got four families now that are eating and stuff like that, so I would say it's been a lot better," he said.

Preventing a patchwork of inconsistent bans that disadvantaged businesses was one of the main rationales for a statewide ban. But that does little to help businesses in border communities.

Vic's Lounge on Center Avenue in Moorhead sits just across the bridge from Fargo, N.D., where smoking is allowed.

Eric Langness is a manager at the bar. He says his staff and customers are convinced the smoking ban will hurt businesses. It's happened before.

"Before North Dakota went to 2 a.m. for the bar closing, since we're right on the border, we were just jam packed every night and then once they went to 2 a.m. we were like a ghost town again at night," said Langness. "That will affect it and if they can't smoke here really what's the point for a lot of the customers?"

Langness says the statewide ban will force his customers to the street when they want a cigarette. That's not ideal in the dead of Minnesota winter. If Langness has to cut jobs, the workers would likely be eligible for some help. The Freedom to Breathe Act funds job training for workers who are laid off within the first two years of the ban.