Minn. Health Dept. pulls curtain on smoke-ban loophole

Smoking sign
Sign alerts patrons that smoking will happen during the performance.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

The Dept. of Health's announcement means the likely end to what has been almost a month of 'theatre nights' for many bars around the state.

By calling the bar a theatre and customers 'actors', bars were until now able to get around the smoking ban, which they say doesn't define what a theatrical production is.

The actors have no lines or costumes. Cigarettes were their only props. The tactic started in rural Minnesota and quickly spread to the Twin Cities.

For the last few weeks, The Rock Nightclub in Maplewood has been holding theatre night. Last Friday, owner Brian Bauman said it's been great for business.

"I've never seen so many people with grins on their faces sitting at a bar, ever. People are like high-fiving you, it's unbelieveable."

The Rock has seen a double-digit drop in sales since the smoking ban went into effect last October. Theatre night was a chance for Bauman to get smokers back into the bar and make up some of that loss.

Last week, health department officials said they were studying the loophole and consulting with the Minnesota Attorney General.

Today, Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan declared that theatre nights in bars are not exempt from the smoking ban.

"This exemption was never intended to fill up a whole room full of people smoking in a public place. So we concluded that he bars are really attempting to circumvent the freedom to breathe act," Commissioner Magnan said.

Magnan said today's announcement is a warning to bars holding theatre nights that the party's over. If they continue circumventing the law, they'll be leaving themselves open to fines of up to $10,000. Magnan's decision immediately drew catcalls from the industry.

Jim Farrell, Executive Director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said the health department's announcement is compounding the confusion about a law that's riddled with loopholes.

"Instead of admitting that there is a possibility that what they are doing is creating confusion, it's like they can never back down on anything," Farrell said.

He said Magnan's decision about the theater loophole leaves it unclear what is legal under the law and what is not.

He said it would better for the state to close the theatrical loophole altogether and have actual theatres use fake cigarettes for productions.

"That's when you come forward and say look, we made these exceptions, we found out there are problems with them, we are going to change them, when it comes to the smoking in the theatre we think it's asinine because we know that second hand smoke is dangerous," Farrell said.

At the Rock Nightclub last Friday, smoker Kay, who didn't want her last name used, is one of the happy customers who came to smoke. She said it should be left up to bar owners whether to allow smoking or not.

"It kinda sucks when people tell you you can or you can't. The only good place to do it is in your car now. I don't think its right," Kay said.

Greg Williams agrees. He said he loves to smoke while drinking, but last weekend, he didn't expect theatre night to last.

"It's back to normal." Williams said. "I can do it; I've got the choice now to do it and stay rather than be inconvenienced. We pretty much know what's going to happen, so we'll enjoy it while we can."

Health department officials said they are coordinating with local health agencies to bring bars into compliance.

Under the law, establishments that allow smoking can be fined but officials say they will first work to educate bars on the law before imposing penalties.

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