January 14, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Sarah Morales, 21, is a college student who's making ends meet by waitressing -- but she says the extra money may be taking its toll on her health.
"Unfortunately, because other people choose to make poor and unhealthy choices by smoking, I lose out," Morales says. "And it is my right that I shouldn't have to sacrifice my health in any workplace."
Morales -- and several other servers and bartenders -- joined a group of state lawmakers at a St. Paul restaurant to urge a sweeping statewide ban on indoor smoking. If enacted, it would stub out smoking in bars, restaurants, and private clubs across the state.
"This will be the year," Rep. Doug Meslow, R-White Bear Lake, says. "We can make this happen."
Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, is a chief sponsor of the plan. He says office workers, for the most part, already enjoy smoke-free environments. He says hospitality workers deserve the same protection from secondhand smoke.
"The health and the life of a bar worker are no less valuable than the health and the life of an office worker," Latz says. "They are not segregated by political party affiliation either. It's Democrats, Republicans, independents, and people with no political affiliation or interest for that matter."
Smoking bans have cropped up recently at the local level, with Duluth, Moorhead, and Olmsted County restricting where smokers can light up. In the spring, bans will take effect in Bloomington, Minneapolis, and Ramsey County.
But bar owners say the rules are unnecessary and likely to drive customers away. Sue Jeffers owns Stub and Herbs in Minneapolis. She says she'd like for the impending city ban to be rolled back, and for the state to stay clear of smoking regulations.
"This is my business that I have spent my whole life building -- the blood, sweat, and the tears of the independent business owner," Jeffers says. "And we're the ones that this kind of ban hurts. It makes me really frustrated."
Jeffers has calculated she could lose up to $250,000 if the ban goes into effect.
The Minnesota License Beverage Association and Hospitality Minnesota both oppose smoking prohibitions in bars and restaurants. And they have at least one important ally in Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum. Sviggum says he won't use his influence to block a smoking ban, but that he personally can't support it.
"I just don't think it's the right of state government -- the right of politicians who know everything -- to come in and to say, 'This is better for you, so this is what we're going to do,'" Sviggum says. "Let the markets decide. The markets will decide."
Sviggum acknowledged that support for a statewide ban is growing -- and he suggested a possible compromise might make an exception for bars. That's already the case in Ramsey and Olmsted counties, but not, for example, in Minneapolis and Bloomington.
The growing patchwork of local laws has produced what some restaurant owners say is an uneven playing field -- smoking allowed in some parts of the state, allowed only in bars in others, and banned outright in yet other parts.
Mary Wildmo owns the Glockenspiel restaurant in St. Paul, where the smoke-free press conference was held. She says she'd prefer to let individual establishments set their own policy. But with the Ramsey County ban about to take effect, she says she's decided to support the statewide, comprehensive ban -- if only as a matter of fairness.
"If you're going to have a public health issue, you can't base it on whether you sell more food or alcohol and then it affects you in regards to your sales," says Wildmo.
That sentiment could bring other bar and restaurant owners on board, arguing that if they're subject to a smoking ban, their competitors should be as well. Gov. Tim Pawlenty says if that position carries the day, he'll be happy to back it.
"In general, a smoking ban's a good idea, and I think it's got some momentum," Pawlenty says. "I think it should get considered. And if it passes this year, I'll sign it."
Pawlenty says, however, that his energy will be focused on other legislative issues, and that he'll leave the smoke-free initiative for others to advance.