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St. Paul, Minn. — The city council chambers were packed. And they were virtually segregated. To the right of Council President Dan Bostrom sat -- and stood -- doctors, school children, and other supporters of the anti-smoking measure. On Bostrom's left there were bartenders, business people, and other critics of the proposed ordinance. Each side had 30 minutes to make its case.
For one side, this is a health issue. The medical director of Health Partners Medical Group, Dr. Brian Rank, told the council that the National Cancer Institute lists smoking as the nation's No. 1 cause of preventable deaths, while second-hand smoke is the No. 3 cause. Rank tried to emphasize the human faces behind the statistics.
"I'm here to tell you that every number represents the life of an individual, and they're real people," Rank said. "In my clinic today -- probably 15 minutes ago -- a 41-year-old woman with lung cancer sat getting chemotherapy. She never smoked a day in her life. Her parents and co-workers did. She's already lost one of her lungs and she's undergoing chemotherapy in a desperate attempt to prevent the recurrence of her cancer."
On the other side of the room stood business owners who feel their livelihoods are threatened. Bar owner Pat Fleury has been the president of the St. Paul Hospitality Association for 18 years. Fluery spoke for many who have put money and labor toward boosting St. Paul establishments, and who now fear the city is about to betray them by undercutting their businesses.
"The last time I checked, smoking was legal. And we have a legal right to choose how to live our lives and how to run our businesses," Fluery said. "If you don't like how we operate, don't work there and don't come in there."
The strong emotions surrounding the issue are especially troublesome for groups that have members on each side. The president of the Twin Cities local of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union says employees are concerned about their health, but also about their jobs. She argued against any step that would make St. Paul a non-smoking island in a competitive industry.
The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce feels a similar squeeze. The chamber's Sandra Westerman explained the group's position.
"We recognize the legitimate, positive health impacts of a smoking ban. And we would support a ban if it were justified and implemented statewide," said Westerman. "However, our oppostion to the ordinance under consideration tonight -- for a St. Paul only smoking ban -- reflects our core principles as the voice of local businesses and our firm belief that the ban would create economic disparity between St. Paul establishments and those located in neighboring cities and around the state."
A Minneapolis City Council member, Gary Schiff, assured his St. Paul colleagues that the larger of the Twin Cities is also considering a smoking ban. Schiff says his Minneapols measure is patterned after the proposal of St. Paul Council Member Dave Thune, and Schiff is optimistic it will pass in Minneapolis.
As for the prospect of statewide legislation, State Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, told the council he and other backers of a smoking ban have failed to get the bill out of committee, much less through the entire House.
"So we need you to be courageous here. We need to build the pressure from below. Don't let the opponents of this play off the local level against the state level. We are each hoping the other will take the first step, because that's the easy way out. But someone's got to take that first step," said Latz.
One nightclub owner spoke in favor of the smoking ban. Jose Carrera, who is also the director of the Latin Sounds Orchestra, believes he and other singers have suffered vocal damage from second-hand smoke. Carrera says gigs in smoke-free locales around the country have convinced him the policy does not hurt business. The president of the Selby Area Business Association, Charles Senkler, countered that his discussions with business owners in cities with smoking bans indicate that large establishments are generlly not hurt, but that smaller, mom-and-pop neighborhood places are sometimes decimated.
St. Paul's City Council could vote on the smoking ban as early as next Wednesday, but Council President Bostrom called that unlikely. He expects council members will want time to consider the arguments presented during the public hearing.