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Impact of smoking bans under scrutiny
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The debate over smoking bans has not abated since they were established in several metro area communities in March 2005. It has pitted indoor air advocates against bar and restaurant owners. (Photo by Chris Furlong/Getty Images)
An anti-smoking advocacy group has released the results of a survey which it says shows overwhelming support for a new anti-smoking law in Hennepin County. According to the survey, a majority of county residents say they are going to bars and restaurants as much, or more often, since smoking was banned in those establisments earlier this year. But some say the ban is having a negative impact on bars and restaurants. The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners will discuss Tuesday how to measure the impact the smoking ban is having on those businesses.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Commissioner Mark Stenglein says he can empathize with bar and restaurant owners. He worked his way through college as a restaurant employee, and at one time owned a small restaurant in northern Minnesota. Stenglein says it's a hard business.

"You've got, essentially, people who are low paid," says Stenglein. "If there aren't people to serve then they don't make tips, and they have to move on to some other place where there are people so they can make their tips."

Stenglein is proposing a countywide study on the economic effects of the smoking ban. He also wants to know how the ban might be affecting the taxes the county collects on food and liquor.

The county is not about to reverse the ban, says Stenglein. Even if it did, the bans in Minneapolis, Golden Valley and Bloomington would still be in effect.

"But I need to at least have some good factual stats. In order to make good public policy you need some good facts. And now we'll have some facts," he says.

Stenglein says he might consider proposing changes to the ban, to soften the blow for businesses that are suffering.

One of those businesses is Dusty's, a bar in northeast Minneapolis.

"We're down about 40 percent," says Ron Carlson, who's been tending bar at Dusty's for 12 years. Hanging next to him is a bucket, with a sign on it that solicits funds to help a legal challenge of the smoking ban. Another sign tells customers that if they don't like the ban they should call their city councilmember.

On a recent afternoon there's one table of four men and two more at the bar.

"Suppertime, the happy hour time and the lunchtime still hold up pretty good," Carlson says. "But the rest is just bad. Especially with this little heat wave we had last week, people don't want to be outside. So, they don't come."

Carlson says the owners of the bar haven't started talking about closing. But he says he and other employees are losing hours. Carlson works part time, and says he's losing about six hours a week.

"That's financial," he says. "You talk to the night staff and they feel a bigger crunch than I do. They're not happy at all."

To help make up for lost business, Dusty's, like many other establishments in Minneapolis, has added outdoor patios where customers can smoke.

Since the ban went into effect in Minneapolis at the end of March, 31 city bars and restaurants have been granted permission to add patios or sidewalk cafes. Nine more applications are pending.

Suppertime, the happy hour time and the lunchtime still hold up pretty good. But the rest is just bad.
- Ron Carlson, bartender

If customers are staying away from bars like Dusty's, they must be flocking to bars and restaurants in other parts of the county. At least that's according to a survey funded by a grant from the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco.

"We certainly understand that some bars and restaurants may be going through a period of transition," says Dr. Barbara Schillo, the lead researcher for the survey. "But what our data tell us is that eight out of 10 residents tell us that they're going out to eat as often, or more, since the ordinances have been put in place."

Schillo says the survey was conducted between May 31 and June 5, and contacted more than 1,200 residents in Minneapolis, Bloomington and Golden Valley. Each city has its own smoking ban.

The survey also says 87 percent of Hennepin County residents are not making special trips outside the county to patronize bars or restaurants that allow smoking.

Schillo says the survey results are positive, because they indicate the ban may be leading to a reduction in tobacco usage.

"These types of policies are supportive of people who are thinking of quitting smoking," Schillo says. "If we look at the Hennepin County data, we see over 20 percent of smokers who indicate they're smoking fewer cigarettes. And nearly a quarter saying that they've thought seriously of quitting smoking."

Schillo says MPAAT is planning followup studies to measure how the bans have affected people's health as well as how bars and restaurants are doing.

Bloomington city officials will release the results of a three-month study of how the ban has affected that city's bars and restaurants next month.

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