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Lawmakers push smoking ban
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Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, made his point by holding up a bag containing a smoke-blackened human lung. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Several DFL lawmakers have unveiled a plan to ban smoking in all public buildings in Minnesota, including bars an restaurants. They say the ban would help reduce smoking-related illnesses and boost business. Critics say the bill is unfair because state government should not impose additional regulations on businesses.

St. Paul, Minn. — Supporters of the smoking ban say the state spends $2.6 billion a year on smoking-related illnesses. They say the bill would reduce those costs because food service staff in bars and restaurants won't continue to inhale second smoke.

Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, made his point by holding up a bag containing a smoke-blackened human lung.

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Image A personal choice

"Individuals who choose to light up their cigarettes choose to do so at their risk, but they have no right to place my health at risk. They can choose to smoke but they shouldn't force me to smoke along with them or my children to smoke along with them," Latz said.

Latz says his bill would ban smoking in all public buildings. It would also ban smoking in taxicabs, daycare centers and other places. Supporters say five other states have passed similar laws in recent years.

Burnsville High School student Taylor Orr says she'd like to see a ban on smoking in all public restaurants. Orr says she has asthma, and has been forced leave several establishments, including her high school hockey banquet, because the room was filled with smoke.

"When we were getting together and having a good time on how the season went and everything, I had to leave early because it was so smoky and I couldn't stay there anymore. It sucks when you have to do that," Orr said.

Critics say they're concerned about the individual rights of business owners. Tom Day, a vice president with Hospitality Minnesota, the umbrella organization for the Minnesota Restaurant, Hotel & Resort Associations, says some of his members have chosen to go smoke free. But he stresses it should be a business owners decision.

"If a restaurant decides on their own that they want to go smoke free because of the action of some of these anti-tobacco groups, but again that boils down to that individual restaurant owner's right to do that and not a state mandate," he said.

Day says four communities in Minnesota, most notably Duluth, have smoking bans. He says several restaurants and bar owners in those communities have complained that they have lost business as a result of the ban. Others say restaurant and bar sales have not declined in Duluth.

States like California and New York say the bar and restaurant business has actually seen an increase in business after implementing their smoking ban.

Rick Sampson, with the New York State Restaurant Association, says his organization supported the ban. He says they're seeing alcohol sales drop but food sales have increased among his 8,000 members.

"Where the economic hardship seems to be lying is really with the corner taverns and bars in the state of New York. There's not as much impact on the restaurant side of it but it has been the small mom-and-pop taverns that have really taken a hit," according to Sampson.

A spokesman for Gov. Pawlenty says the governor is undecided on the issue, but is concerned about secondhand smoke in public places.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says it's unlikely that the Republican-controlled House will spend much time debating the measure. Sviggum says he doesn't want to place any additional regulations on Minnesota businesses. He says patrons who don't like smoke can choose not to go into a smoky bar.

"Those still are private pieces of property. The government doesn't own that bars or restaurants, at least I don't think we do. And in a free society, maybe this is a touch too philosophical, but in a free society, people still have and deserve and need the right to make decisions," Sviggum said.

The bill is also receiving some criticism from some House and Senate DFLers. Several DFLers on the Iron Range say they don't think there should be any more regulations on Minnesota businesses. They say the matter is better handled on the local level.

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