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Senate passes strict smoking ban

ST. PAUL - Smokers would be banned from all public Minnesota workplaces other than well ventilated outdoor patios under a Senate-passed bill.

Minnesota senators voted 41-24 Tuesday for a strict smoking ban, turning back several efforts to weaken it. The House version of the measure awaits action in a committee with a chairman opposed to the measure.

Long-time anti-smoking advocate Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said the Senate vote is a victory.

"My main thing is trying to change the culture," he said. "This legislation will discourage smoking in this state. And that is good."

Dille supported a failed effort to ban the sale of tobacco products, but he said that is at least a decade from becoming acceptable.

The prime bill sponsor, DFL Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato, said each year more than 580 Minnesotans die of second-hand smoke and more than 6,000 get sick.

Another of the bill's top supporters, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said smoking costs Minnesotans $2.6 million annually in health care costs.

The bill has been one of the most-watched issues this legislative session, with rural legislators providing much of the opposition, saying they fear the loss of businesses such as bars and restaurants if the ban passes. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he will sign the ban.

While the Senate approved a strict ban, the House version remains a work in progress. At this point, it is similar to the Senate version.

However, the House bill awaits work by a committee led by Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who does not favor the ban. And it faces more committees if the Rukavina panel advances the measure.

The Senate bill strengthens the state's existing clean-air laws to forbid smoking in public workplaces. The only exception is to allow open-air patios adjoining bingo halls, restaurants and bars, as long as they are well ventilated.

Among failed attempts to weaken the bill were amendments allowing smoking in veterans' clubs. Also failing was a proposal to allow bars with at least 60 percent of their sales in alcoholic beverages to avoid the ban.

"Either keep the liquor establishments inside the ban or outside," Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said. "Let's not pick one over the other."

Langseth said if smokers could visit a club such as Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion, it would close small-town bars that could not allow smoking.

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, wanted veterans clubs to be exempt from the ban.

"We have a lot of small clubs struggling," the southwestern Minnesota senator said. "Make it just a little bit easier for outstate Minnesota."

Much of the argument over the bill was whether second-hand smoke was dangerous at any level.

Dille said that while he is a co-author of the Senate bill, he doesn't buy the argument that every amount of smoke is harmful.

"It is the dose that makes the poison," he said.

Besides, Sen. David Tomassoni asked, "quite frankly, who goes to a bar to get healthy?"

Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, temporarily succeeded during the committee process to strip some of the teeth from the ban, but failed to follow suit in the full Senate.

"I call this the freedom-to-choose amendment," he told senators about a proposal allowing cities and counties to vote to allow smoking. It failed on a voice vote.

The bill allows local governments to enact stricter ordinances than the state law.

It also orders a study about how the bans affects legal gambling such as pull tabs sold in bars. Many charities claim they will lose revenue if the ban becomes law.

A Tomassoni provision that did survive allows people who lose jobs due to the law to use the state dislocated worker program.

Tomassoni said he fears the loss of jobs.

"What we are doing here is closing bars and restaurants," he said.

Many border Minnesotans will drive to bars in adjoining states, Tomassoni added.

An effort by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, failed to ban smoking in American Indian casinos. Some senators said they are concerned about workers' health in tribal casinos, which are governed by federal law and would be able to continue admitting smokers.

The mostly rural opposition said the ban infringes on people's rights.

"Nobody, nobody has to go into a bar if they don't want to," Tomassoni said. "And nobody has to work in a bar if they don't want to."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.