Smoking ban goes statewide Monday

Wants an exemption for bars that lose money
Kenn Rockler of the Tavern League of Minnesota still wants to see an exemption for bars that lose income due to the smoking ban.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The Freedom to Breathe Law prohibits smoking in all bars, restaurants, private clubs, indoor public space and places of employment. The law expands the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act that has restricted smoking for more than 30 years.

"This is a great change," said Dr. Jane Korn, medical director for the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Division at the Minnesota Department of Health. "This is one of the most important steps in public health that we could have hoped to see probably in the last couple of decades."

An ashtray in use
Indoor smoking will be against the law in Minnesota starting Oct. 1.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Korn says there's been a big effort among state and local agencies to get information out to business owners about the new law. She says the benefits are clear.

"This is protecting workers from secondhand smoke," Korn said. "And secondhand smoke is a significant cause of death and disability in this state and around the nation."

About 40 percent of the state's population is already covered by similar restrictions under existing city and county smoking ordinances. Violators will face a $300 fine, and repeated violations could bring a penalty of up to $10,000. Municipalities will be able to enact tougher penalties if they choose.

"If somebody is in an establishment and they see somebody smoking in a bar or in a restaurant or in any kind of a workplace, the first step is to ask somebody to put it out and remind them that it's now the law, Korn said."

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"Some of them have taken just a cold hard look at the dollars and cents, and feel they'd be better off paying three $500 fines rather than lose $10,000 of business in a month."

The law still allows bars to have outdoor smoking patios. A few workplaces, including family farms and the cabs of heavy trucks, are exempt from the ban. Patients in locked psychiatric units and actors in theatrical productions are also allowed to light up. American Indian casinos are not affected by the state law.

Most bars and restaurants are expected to embrace the new law. But some opponents who fought hard against the ban could remain defiant.

Kenn Rockler of the Tavern League of Minnesota says he's not advocating resistance, but he knows some bars plan to ignore the ban. Rockler says a few owners have said they would rather fight the law than lose the business of smoking customers.

"Some of them have taken just a cold hard look at the dollars and cents, and feel they'd be better off paying three $500 fines rather than lose $10,000 of business in a month," Rockler said.

Rockler says the Tavern League will likely return to the state Capitol next session to ask lawmakers to adjust the ban. He says preliminary discussions are underway on legislation to add an exemption for bars that experience a significant drop in business.

"It's really hard to put a finger on it until we've seen some results," Rockler said. "We're 99 percent sure what's going to happen, but we really can't go to the Legislature and say 'This is what's going to happen,' as well as we can say 'Here, now you have three months compared to the year before.' We'd like to have the hard data on it."

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Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, doesn't want exemptions or an outdoor ban.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Rockler says he's also concerned the state's anti-smoking groups will next try to ban all outdoor smoking. He says a few cities already have de facto bans on outdoor smoking by prohibiting the activity near building entrances.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, was the chief sponsor of the Freedom to Breathe Act. She says her concern was always about indoor air. Sheran says she doesn't want to add an exemption to the ban. She's also not interested in pursuing a ban on outdoor smoking.

"One of the reasons that I feel confident about the legislation that's passed so far, as it relates to indoor air, is because it's evidence based," Sheran said. "As a health care provider, as a nurse, much of what I think we need to do has to be supported by the evidence, and that's the case in the Freedom to Breathe Act. So, that evidence does not support anything further as far as I know of at this time."

Sheran guided the smoking ban bill last session on an arduous journey through six committees. After that experience, Sheran says she doubts lawmakers will have any appetite to revisit the ban in 2008.