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St. Paul, Minn. — It had been a pretty typical city council meeting. Members had ruled that the proposed width of a driveway apron would not interfere with the integrity of a neighborhood. They'd heard an update on plans for the city's big July 4 celebration.
When the agenda brought them to the proposed smoking ban, council member Dave Thune felt compelled to remind his colleagues that secondhand smoke is a life-and-death issue, with an importance that Thune says dwarfs most council business.
"This is probably the most important issue any of us will take up during our term of office. Because this one is not about fences, it's not about developments, it's not about infractions of one sort or another. It's about human lives. About life and about dying," Thune said.
This is probably the most important issue any of us will take up during our term of office. Because this one is not about fences, it's not about developments, it's not about infractions of one sort or another. It's about human lives. About life and about dying.
Smoking has been a hot topic in St. Paul city hall since Thune -- a self-described tobacco addict -- suggested this spring that the city prohibit it in bars and restaurants. A number of business interests have fought against the idea.
Some restaurant and tavern owners say they should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to permit smoking in their establishments. Many fear a St. Paul smoking ban will only serve to drive their customers who do smoke to restaurants and bars in neighboring cities. Council President Dan Bostrom is sympathetic to that concern.
"It's my opinion, in talking to several business owners, this is serious -- really -- to them and to their livelihoods and to the livelihoods of their employees," Bostrom said, "if St. Paul is an island, and folks can just drive across the street into Maplewood or Roseville or West St. Paul or South St. Paul or Minneapolis, and choose not to patronize our places of business that provide jobs for hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of people."
But the four council members who approved the smoking ban say their priority is protecting the health of the people of St. Paul. Council member Jay Benanav, disappointed that the ordinance stands to be vetoed, notes health is also a pocketbook issue.
"It puzzles me that -- when you open the paper today, one of the things you read about is the public health crisis and the cost of health insurance, and the suffering both financially and personally that we see with people's illnesses, many of which are caused by smoking -- and that when we have an opportunity to save lives, we are unwilling to take that step," said Benanav.
Since St. Paul proposed its smoking ban, the discussion has quickly spread to city council chambers all around the Twin Cities area. Many critics say a series of municipal smoking bans would produce a confusing hodgepodge of rules. They say a more widespread policy applying the same rules throughout the Twin Cities is preferable. That's the reasoning Mayor Kelly will apply when he kills St. Paul's new ordinance.
"I intend to veto this proposal that passed on a narrow 4-3 vote, and to work with other elected officials in Hennepin, Ramsey, and Dakota counties to see if we can't devise a regional approach," Kelly said, "And come back as soon as possible to deal with this issue, to provide the greatest amount of health protection to a much larger group of people."
Attempts to pass a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants have consistently failed at the Legislature. Some of the defenders of St. Paul's city ban say political consensus may be elusive for a regional non-smoking policy, as well. They argue that Kelly's signature on the newly-passed city ordinance would give some momentum to the case for a region-wide smoking ban, as well as protection for Saint Paul's nonsmokers in the event regional talks collapse.
Kelly, though, is optimistic about the regional approach and hopes it will lead to an agreement before January, which is when the ordinance passed by the council would take effect.