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Bloomington passes first metro area smoking ban
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A large crowd of people showed up Monday night for the Bloomington City Council's vote on a smoking ban. The council approved a smoking ban in all public places and workplaces, effective Sept. 1. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The Bloomington City Council has passed the first metro area smoking ban. Starting Sept. 1, 2004, all public places and workplaces in Bloomington become smoke-free. The ban would take effect in bars and restaurants next March. The council passed the ban on a 6-1 vote, after four hours of testimony and debate that stretched into the early morning hours.

Bloomington, Minn. — Even before public testimony began, Bloomington Council member Heather Harden made it clear to the more than 200 people assembled in council chambers that the smoking ban had the votes to pass.

"It was very important for us to take the leadership position in this movement, seeing as how all of the other cities that were trying it in our metro area were sort of falling off the diving board. So, we're going to dive, we're going to jump," Harden said.

The vote to ban smoking in all public places in Bloomington was nearly unanimous. Council member Vern Wilcox cast the lone opposing vote.

"I am a strong believer in personal freedoms. And I'm a strong believer in people should take responsibility for themselves," Wilcox said. "From the Bloomington standpoint, I have a huge concern that we're going to create an unlevel playing field. And those surrounding communities will take advantage of that and try to steal our business."

It was very important for us to take the leadership position in this movement, seeing as how all of the other cities that were trying it in our metro area were sort of falling off the diving board. So, we're going to dive, we're going to jump.
- Heather Harden, Bloomington City Council member

Many of the nearly 75 people who testified shared the same fears about losing business to nearby suburbs like Eden Prairie and Burnsville.

A number of representatives from local VFWs and other fraternal organizations testified in opposition to the ban. Bloomington VFW employee John Crary says most charitable gamblers are smokers. He says if Bloomington is alone in enacting a smoking ban, it will spell the end for charitable gambling organizations, which he says contribute millions of dollars to local charities and the city.

"In fact, fraternal organizations are the main impetus for charitable funds. Therefore we request -- actually, we expect -- no, really, we demand -- an exemption in this ordinance," Crary said.

The council did not grant the exemption. But, it did say it would be open to revisiting the issue if other cities exempt charitable gambling organizations from their ordinances.

The council did compromise on one provision in the ordinance -- outdoor smoking at restaurants. The original draft would have banned all smoking in restaurants and bars, including outdoor patios. But after hearing from several restaurant owners, council members agreed to allow smoking in up to 50 percent of a restaurant's outdoor seating.

Council members focused their support of the ban on worker health. As they put it, the right to breathe clean air trumps smokers rights.

But, the perception that a smoking ban infringes on civil rights fueled concern from several people who testified, including Jim Taylor, who made his point with some drama.

"Hello, my name is...(sneezes) -- sorry. I'm allergic to bad perfume. And I think we should really ban that, too," Taylor said. "I really don't care for body odor. I really don't care for bad breath, I really don't like buses when they spew filth behind them. And I really don't like high taxes, and I really don't like laws being imposed upon us that are borderline of the Constitution, violating other laws and our rights. And we need less government, not more."

The ordinance also says that workers cannot block a building entrance while on smoke breaks. Instead, smokers will be required to stay 25 feet away from building entrances. After some discussion among council members, this provision was kept, with the option to revisit it after other bans are enacted.

City officials say ban enforcement will be complaint-based. They say there would be no "sting" operations to catch proprietors in the act of allowing someone to light up in their bar, retaurant, or bingo parlor.

Mayor Gene Winstead says it was important to keep moving and get a vote.

"In the metro area, yes, we are out front. We are the largest suburb. So be it. I think others will follow," Winstead said.

The ban goes into effect Sept. 1, but enforcement for bars and restaurants does not begin until March 31, 2005. The later start date is designed to coincide with other metro area smoking bans supporters hope will pass, now that Bloomington has led the way.

Minneapolis is scheduled to vote on its ban on Friday. The St. Paul ban was vetoed by the mayor.

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