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Smoking ban defeated in House committee
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Karla Suckling, 26, of Minneapolis takes advantage of her ability to smoke in bars and restaurants. An attempt to ban the practice statewide suffered a major setback in the Minnesota House. (MPR Photo/Bianca Vasquez Toness)
Supporters of a statewide smoking ban suffered a significant setback on Wednesday. The House Commerce Committee defeated a bill that would create a statewide smoking ban in all restaurants. The controversial measure failed on a divided voice vote.

St. Paul, Minn. — Supporters of the statewide smoking ban knew that the House Commerce Committee would be the bill's toughest test. The committee regulates and considers matters concerning business. With some minor exceptions the bill would ban smoking statewide in any establishment that sells more food than liquor.

Rep. Doug Meslow, R-White Bear Lake, the chief author of the bill, told committee members that he understood their concerns regarding the ban's financial impact on restaurants. But he told them that they should also consider the health interests of restaurants employees and customers. He believes the committee erred on the side of business.

"At its root, this bill balances health concerns with business concerns. I think that members of this committee were extra concerned about the business issues," he said.

Meslow and other ban supporters hoped that the Legislature would approve a bill this year. In the past year Ramsey and Hennepin counties passed smoking bans that go into effect at the end of the month. Supporters took out full page ads in several newspapers encouraging support for the ban in the interest of public health.

I find the lack of choices kind of tough because one law conflicts with another.
- Rep. Bob Gunther

In testimony before the committee, Dr. Richard Lussky, with Hennepin County Medical Center, stressed the main message from those who support the ban. He told the committee that they could do more for public health than any single doctor.

"You as legislators have the ability to impact the health of the population of this state much more so than I can. What a true gift that is and I sincerly hope you use it wisely," he said.

Both supporters and opponents of the legislation pointed to statistics to bolster their arguments. Supporters say restaurant sales tax receipts increased in areas where a ban is in place.

But opponents say individual restaurants have been forced to go out of business. Dave Siegel with the industry organization, Hospitality Minnesota, says many restaurant owners are worried that smokers will no longer frequent their establishments. He says owners change their smoking policies when customers demand it. He says a quarter of all the restaurants in the state are already smoke free.

"This demonstrates the market forces do work and that the customers of these businesses are in effect dictating to a great degree the actions of the restaurant owners," according to Siegel. "We hope you'll continue to let restaurants continue to adapt to their customers needs and wishes."

It was clear that opponents were trying to emphasize the threat to Minnesota businesses. Several lobbyists handed out testimonials from restaurant owners that lived in the legislative districts of committee members.

Rep. Bob Gunther says he had concerns about the bill since it would forbid smoking in any bar or restaurant that sells more food than alcohol. He says a ban would cover all establishments in his home city of Fairmont, which only gives liquor licenses to restaurants that sell more food than alcohol.

"In the city of Fairmont as well as other communities, there will be no place that you can smoke in any bar or restaurant. And I find the lack of choices kind of tough because one law conflicts with another," Gunther said.

Even though the committee defeated the bill, it's likely that a proposed ban will resurface as an amendment to some other legislation in the House. The full Senate is scheduled to vote on a more restrictive bill that bans smoking in both bars and restaurants.