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Hennepin County poised to alter smoking ban
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Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein was successful in convincing the entire board to conduct an economic impact study of the county's smoking ban. His goal is to collect hard data that would support an easing of the smoking restrictions in bars and restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Mark Stenglein)
The stage is set in Hennepin County for a debate over the future of the county's smoking ban. The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners has voted to study the economic impact of the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Some commissioners say the ban has especially hurt small bar owners, and expressed a desire to change the county's law to allow for exemptions.

Minneapolis, Minn. — About 100 people sat inside and just outside the glass walls of the Hennepin County Board room during Tuesday's meeting. When Commissioner Mark Stenglein asked how many came to hear the discussion about the smoking ban study, they all raised their hands.

Most of them held up signs printed on red sheets of letter-sized paper. One of the commissioners couldn't read what their signs said, so John Alexander came to the podium.

"It says, 'Commissioners, I support an amendment to change the Hennepin County smoking ban ordinance,'" Alexander told the board.

Alexander proceeded to tell the board why he came to the meeting.

"I own Johnny A's Sports Bar, and you know why everybody's here," said Alexander. "We're all actually dying slow, slow deaths."

An amendment to the smoking ban was not on the board's agenda on this day. Before the board was Stenglein's resolution to study the economic impact of the ban.

We voted for this, not based on economic impacts. We voted on this because we are entrusted with the responsibility for protecting the public health.
- Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman

Under the directive, county staff will collect second quarter sales tax data from county bars and restaurants from 2004 and 2005. Stenglein says he wants the staff to compare those numbers to sales tax data collected from Anoka and Ramsey County establishments.

"My goal here, of course, in doing this is to change the will of some of the people on this board -- to perhaps, at best, try to get ours to mirror Ramsey County's ordinance," Stenglein said. "Ideally, I'd like to get to do away with it completely."

The Ramsey County smoking ban allows for exemptions for private clubs and establishments that sell more liquor than food. Commissioner Mike Opat says he's in favor of exemptions, especially for bars that are close to counties that don't have a smoking restriction. "What I'm interested in doing, what I'm open to, is creating some exceptions for places that are truly struggling," said Opat. "And in the aggregate, the ban will remain in effect."

When asked why he didn't just skip the study and offer a resolution to amend the ban, Stenglein says he didn't have the votes to pass such a measure. All Stenglein needs is four votes from the seven-member board, and he already has the support of Commissioners Opat and Penny Steele.

But Stenglein will have a much harder time convincing the board to completely overturn the smoking ban.

The county board also oversees the budget of the Hennepin County Medical Center. HCMC is the third-largest hospital in the state, and it also has the largest and busiest emergency room in Minnesota. Commissioner Gail Dorfman says the board should keep its priorities straight.

"We voted for this, not based on economic impacts. We voted on this because as a public health authority, we are entrusted with that responsibility for protecting the public health," said Dorfman. "And when we collected all of the information about the dangers of secondhand smoke, we made a decision that we ought to protect the public from secondhand smoke in bars and restaurants."

Anti-smoking ban advocates who attended the meeting say they want to see action, in whatever form, happen soon. Carolyn Miller, president of the Minnesota Hospitality Association, says the situation is dire for many of the businesses she represents. However, she didn't have exact numbers to quote.

"That data, I think, would come from that individual business," says Miller. "Have I spoken myself with people? Yes. I have members who are seeing that by the end of the year they'll be bankrupt."

Any changes to the Hennepin County smoking ban will not alter bans in the county's two largest and commercially prosperous cities -- Minneapolis and Bloomington -- because they have their own city ordinances in effect. The same is true in Golden Valley.

Bloomington will release the results of its own economic impact study in August.

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