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Smoking ban ordinances causing anxiety, optimism
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In Ramsey County, smoking patrons in restaurants had to stub their butts in ashtrays for good at one minute past midnight Wednesday. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
Metro area bar and restaurant owners and patrons are preparing for the fallout from smoking bans that took effect later at midnight Wednesday in Ramsey and Hennepin counties and Golden Valley. Bans in Minneapolis and Bloomington are effective Thursday.

St. Paul, Minn. — In Ramsey County, smoking patrons in restaurants had to stub their cigarette butts in ashtrays for good at one minute past midnight. However, that wasn't the case in many places that serve alcohol in Ramsey County.

That's because so far, 116 exemptions have been granted to private clubs and establishments that sell more booze than food. That's causing some anxiety in places where smoking will be banned altogether.

"I think people are most worried how it's going to affect business," says Melanie Anderson, a manager at Axel's Bonfire Grill on Grand Ave. in St. Paul. "Because obviously if our business is less, then the servers aren't making as much money."

Axel's is a restaurant that has a bar -- which means it will be covered by the smoking ban. Across the street is Billy's on Grand, a bar that is exempt from the ban. Anderson says customers who want to smoke may head across the street, but she says there are other reasons why people come to Axel's.

"I know a lot of people who come here for our TVs and our atmosphere," she says. "We have a lot of regulars who come here just to see the staff. So I do know we'll keep some of that."

Anderson says they will probably add some late night specials to help keep the bar crowd from going across the street.

In Hennepin County, and Minneapolis in particular, the smoking ban is more restrictive.

"I think all the counties in the local area should abide by the same rules," says Ron Carlson, a bartender at Dusty's bar in northeast Minneapolis -- just a few miles south of Anoka County, where there is no smoking ban.

Carlson has been at Dusty's for 12 years. Dusty's is a family-owned bar that's been in business for more than half a century. Carlson says the bar's owner has already been required by the city to spend about $30,000 on a new air ventilation system. Now there won't be any smoke to clear.

Carlson fears the ban will be an additional financial hit on the bar, because a lot of his customers smoke. He says they may decide to go elsewhere if they can't smoke at Dusty's.

"We can fill the joint at lunchtime," says Carlson. "You know, three or four of them come by for lunch. If one of them smokes, they're going to go up the road."

At least one Dusty's customer says he's not going anywhere else. Terry Held is sitting next to Carlson at the bar on a sunny weekday afternoon. He's the only customer at the moment.

Both Held and Carlson are smokers. Held tends bar at a VFW in Golden Valley. He says he might have to quit smoking because he won't be able to smoke on the job. But Held says despite the ban, he'll keep coming back.

"It's not going to really stop me from going anywhere, I think," says Held. "I've been sitting around here for 25 years, so it's kind of where your friends hang out."

While some Minneapolis bar and restaurant owners fear the ban will cause many of their smoking customers to cross county lines, there is some evidence that the ban may help them.

I think there's this huge silent majority who don't smoke, but love to go out and socialize with their friends and are going to take advantage of this opportunity.
- Janel Brakke

A study co-authored by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco (MPAAT), found that more than 90 percent of Minnesotans say they would be more likely to eat out if there were a total restaurant smoking ban.

And there are some people, like Janel Brakke, who say they will be more likely to go to bars that are smoke-free.

"I love live music," says Brakke. "I love to socialize with my friends, but it just got to the point where it wasn't enjoyable. I would go out and have to leave early because the smoke would make me sick."

Brakke is organizing a pub crawl for Saturday night. She's hoping to get more than 100 people to walk to and patronize several bars in northeast Minneapolis.

Brakke says she's doesn't work for an anti-smoking organization. But she does feel like she speaks for a large group of people who want to enjoy smoke-free venues.

"I think there's this huge silent majority who don't smoke, but love to go out and socialize with their friends and are going to take advantage of this opportunity," she says.

Other smoking ban proponents say similar laws in the state of California and New York City have not led to financial ruin for bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, many local business owners say they will nervously wait and see what effect the ban has on them.