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MINNESOTA SMOKING BAN: Freedom to breathe

It's going to be a cold, cold winter for Minnesota bar patrons with smoking habits. The state's strictest ban yet on indoor smoking goes into effect Monday and the biggest impact will likely be on bars, some of the last holdouts against an anti-t...

It's going to be a cold, cold winter for Minnesota bar patrons with smoking habits.

The state's strictest ban yet on indoor smoking goes into effect Monday and the biggest impact will likely be on bars, some of the last holdouts against an anti-tobacco movement that's grown stronger in recent years.

Northwest Minnesota bar owners say they just don't know what the ban will do to their business, but many are taking steps to make their smoking patrons as comfortable as possible. Of course, "comfort" is relative when the smoking has to be done outdoors and it's 20 below zero.

Tracy Olson and her husband, Shannon Weltikol, the owners of the O-Zone bar in Nielsville, Minn., for instance, built a screened-in patio adjacent to the bar in June. It keeps the snow from falling on the smokers but does little to block the biting winds.

Olson said she may look into installing a heater in the patio, but local city officials and fire codes will have a say in whether that is even possible.


In East Grand Forks, American Legion Post 157's club is considering a similar solution but is holding off until there is clear demand from patrons, said commander Eddie Obregon. Commanders from posts in Hennepin County, which has had a smoking ban that affects bars since 2005, have reported that their smoking porches just haven't been that popular, he said. When people are indoors, they want to stay indoors, he said.

For now, the post will just put out chairs and tables.

The ban's workings

Minnesota became the 20th state to pass a comprehensive smoke-free law when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the so-called Freedom to Breathe Act on May 16. The state was the first to ban smoking in the workplace with the Clean Indoor Act of 1975, so the new law is really an amendment of the old.

It prohibits smoking in all indoor places and workplaces, including private clubs, retail stores, home offices, industrial work zones and work vehicles. Exemptions still exist for hotel rooms designated for smoking guests, theatrical productions, American Indian traditional ceremonies, tobacco shops, and on family farms where fewer than two people are employed.

Officials are still working out interpretations for veterans rest camps and halfway houses.

The law prohibits bars and restaurants from providing ashtrays and matches, but they're allowed to continue to sell cigarettes. They may set aside a smoking area that's cut off from the main business and has more than half of the vertical wall space open or screened.

The law can hold both the smokers and the business owners accountable with progressively stiffer penalties. Cities and counties can make their smoke-free laws stricter than the state, but not less.


The provision allowing for a smoking area is the one loophole for bar owners that want to allowing smoking.

That means the O-Zone's patio is kosher under the law, Polk County Public Health officials said, though one health employee said she would still have to drop in for an inspection.

Temporary pain

So far, the reception to the law has been good, according to D'Anne Johnson, a Polk County health educator. She's the head of a five-member committee tasked with educating and handling implementation questions for the county since August.

Committee members contacted each of the 105 food and beverage license holders in the county to alert them to the new law. She said only three business owners voiced displeasure with the change.

"The biggest reason for that is that it is a statewide law," Johnson said. "It's not picking on just one county or city."

Sheri Altepeter, director of Polk County Public Health, said the track record of smoking bans has shown that negative impacts to businesses are temporary. "There is an initial little dip, but after it all settles, it's back to the way it was, even a little better than it was."

Crookston bar and restaurants voluntarily went smoke free about five years ago, and public officials say, in that time, only one restaurant in town, the Pizza Hut, shut down.


Naturally, there is a bit more concern among bar owners in cities close to the border with North Dakota, where smoking is still allowed. But even there it didn't seem that big of a deal. Bar owners and managers say they have heard patrons grumble about staying home or hopping across the river for a puff, but not that many.

"I suppose we'll have some people jump ship, but I'm hoping not," said Greg Stennes, one of the owners of Whitey's Cafe in downtown East Grand Forks. The fact is he's had to expand his nonsmoking section, he said, to please nonsmoking customers.

It used to be that nonsmokers, given a choice between waiting for a table in the nonsmoking section and grabbing an open table in the smoking section, would just as soon take whatever's available. But starting about two or three years ago, more and more of them chose to wait. So, a year ago, he banned smoking in the restaurant part of his business completely.

"The market just dictated that," Stennes said.

The problem he has with the ban is more philosophical: "I don't quarrel with the line of thinking that second hand smoke is bad. It's just that there are those that have an axe to grind that want to force smokers to quit. That's a rationale I don't support at all. I'm terribly offended at that."

In Nielsville, 14 miles down the road from the nearest North Dakota town, Olson, the O-Zone owner, didn't worry much about the impact either. "I didn't like it when I first heard about the new law because everyone was saying it's going to affect my business," she said. "I think it might hurt for a while - if people are going to be stubborn - but I think they will adjust and come back."




This may explain why few bars have taken advantage of the loophole allowing smoking patios. The O-Zone is the only one in the county that's built a patio, according to Johnson.

Many others are taking the wait-and-see approach or making minimal investments.

Dave Thompson, the owner of Capt. Crooks cocktail lounge and bottle shop in Crookston and the Wheel Bar in Middle River, Minn., is among the former. "Should I build something or not - I don't know," he said. "I don't really have a whole lot of real estate to work with."

Thompson said, at about 25 miles, his Crookston bar should be far enough away from the border. Plus, he said, the patrons that frequent his bar in Crookston tend to be younger, from the town's university, and they are more of a nonsmoking crowd.

For his other bar in Middle River, Thompson is contemplating parking a large bus on his lot so that customers could go inside and light up in a more comfortable environment than standing outside.

"We'll call it Smok'n Wheels," Thompson said with a smile.

Stennes, the Whitey's owner in East Grand Forks, is among those making the minimal investment. He already has an awning set up for the summer crowd and would probably put up some panels to block the wind for the winter crowd.

Some bars aren't even going that far.


The only thing Paul Gregg, owner of the Irishman's Shanty lounge and restaurant in the heart of Crookston's industrial zone, said all he plans to do is to put out a jar of Lifesavers candies.

"It's just one of those things to give them a little life - to give them a life preserver," he joked.

Gregg said he went along with the rest of the city's restaurants five years ago when they voluntarily switched to all-nonsmoking and he knew that it was inevitable that other businesses, to include bars, soon would be next.

Dodds reports on Northwest Minnesota. Reach him at (701) 780-1110 or ddodds@gfherald.com . Tran reports on Grand Forks and East Grand Forks City Hall. Reach him at (701) 780-1248 or ttran@gfherald.com or see his blog at www.areavoices.com/gfhcitybeat .

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