Friday, June 5, 2020
More from MPR
Respond to this story


Hennepin County considers changes to smoking ban law

Larger view
Protesters demonstrate outside the Hennepin County Government center. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners will hear testimony Tuesday about the future of the county's smoking ban ordinance. The board is considering relaxing its total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants to allow smoking in bars and private clubs. Some members of the hospitality industry say they favor a law that allows these exemptions. They say the county's current law has created an uneven playing field for business. However, some say if this new proposal passes it will make it harder for legislators to agree on a statewide ban.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Commissioner Mark Stenglein wants Hennepin County's law to match the Ramsey County ordinance which allows smoking in bars which sell more liquor than food. Ramsey County also allows smoking in private clubs and in restaurants that fully enclose and ventilate their bar areas.

Stenglein says the new ordinance would give a boost to small bar owners who say the Hennepin County ban has cost them out of business.

"This is merely a step for small business to be able to compete fairly," he says. "Government's main role is to set a fair playing field, not get in and make it unfair."

A change to the Hennepin County smoking ban ordinance may not have an immediate impact on some of the county's largest cities. Some cities like Edina, Eden Prairie and Brooklyn Center don't have bars - they have restaurants with bar areas. And Minneapolis, Golden Valley and Bloomington have their own smoking ban laws that are more restrictive than the county's ordinance, so they aren't affected.

Stenglein acknowledges that his plan will not directly affect his bar owner constituents in Minneapolis. But he says it may add some leverage for them if they want to go to Minneapolis City Hall to lobby for a change to its ordinance.

"Minneapolis will have to change their ban if they're going to compete with the rest of the locales," says Stenglein. "They have have an option to re-amend their ban as well. Sure, it's a problem unless they take action."

Bar owner Jeff Moritko agrees.

"Absolutely I think it gives a great opportunity for Minneapolis to re-look at their ban and do something," Moritko says.

Moritko runs Mayslacks bar in northeast Minneapolis. He says he's lost a lot of regular smoking customers since the ban went into place in April. However, Moritko says his business hasn't gone as far south as other bars because food sales have increased.

Moritko says a change in Hennepin County could help swing momentum for a Ramsey County type ban in Minneapolis. He says that type of ordinance is the best compromise for bar owners and people who want smoke free places to eat and socialize.

"If our ultimate goal is to ultimately be a smoke free Minnesota then you start with small steps like you would any other decision you make in your life," he says. "You don't try to hit a homerun every step up, you take steps as you go."

But some say changing the ban in Hennepin County would be a mistake.

"I don't understand Commissioner Stenglein's logic on this," says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Rybak says he's not ready to change anything about the Minneapolis smoking ban. Rybak says the ban has been both a boost and a problem for some businesses. He says a way to make the ban easier on those businesses is to enact a uniform statewide ban. But Rybak says rolling back part of Hennepin County's ordinance and creating more of a patchwork of laws in the region is sending the wrong message to state legislators and business owners.

"What is the most important thing is to not keep saying to business that we're going to change now and later and again and a fourth time," he says. "That's the worst thing you can do to business. Let's stay the course and work toward a statewide ban."

Health advocates also oppose allowing exemptions to the county's smoking ban ordinance. Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report that shows that comprehensive smoking ban laws are helping to reduce adult smoking rates across the country. Robert Moffitt,communications director for the American Lung Association of Minnesota, wants to maintain the ban.

"It's not just reducing the health risks of secondary smoke, which are not insignificant," says Moffitt. "But these smoking bans are going to help a lot of the people who work in the hospitality industry quit. Not to mention a lot of the patrons."

The board isn't expected to vote on the resolution until later this month. The board is evenly split on the issue. However, commissioner Peter McLaughlin remains silent on how he'll vote. McLaughlin says he'll wait until after the public hearing before he announces his support or rejection of the amendment.