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Hennepin County board considers exemptions to smoke ban

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Mo Aljadah is the bar manager of the American Legion post in Champlin. He says the smoking ban has led to a 25 percent drop in business. (brandt williams)
Hennepin County Commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal that would weaken the county's smoking ban ordinance. If the proposal is approved about 274 establishments that serve food and liquor could be eligible for smoke ban exemptions. However county officials don't know how many of those will meet exemption criteria. Private clubs, like VFW and American Legion posts would also be able to allow their members and guests to light up. Members and staff of many of these clubs say the ban has been bad for business.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The dining room in American Legion Post 600 in Champlin is large enough to fit more than 200 people. It features a small stage in the corner for live music, a couple large screen televisions and arcade-style video games. But during lunchtime on a recent weekday, only four customers are present.

Legion managers say business is down 25 percent since the smoke ban took effect in Hennepin County. As a result, they've had to layoff one of their 30 employees. Bartender Mary Voss says in her 34 years at this this Post, she's never seen business so bad.

Does anybody know what it's like to have to tell someone who's fighting for us that they can't even smoke in their own club? That just made me sick.
- Mary Voss

"You can see the business has gone down a lot," says Voss. "It's tough."

Voss says business started dropping soon after commissioners enacted the ban in April. The post is located just across the border from Anoka County where there is no ban. Voss says that's where a lot of the smoking customers have gone.

"And they've taken all of our non-smoking customers with them," she says. "Because our smoking customers and the non-smoking customers are friends, they all hang out together. If they don't go across the river, they stay home."

Data from the Minnesota Department of Revenue shows a decrease in total taxable sales for establishments that sell liquor in Champlin over the past year. In 2004, for the months of April, May and June, Champlin establishments made $1.63 million in total taxable sales. In 2005, that number fell to $1.46 million.

Taxable sales have gone up for establishments in Coon Rapids, which is just across the border into Anoka county.

But there are some customers at the Legion who have chosen not to stay home or go across the river.

"To come in here and see three or four people having lunch is sad," says Cheryl Peterson. Peterson is a member of the Legion's Auxiliary and a regular lunchtime customer. Peterson is also a smoker. She doesn't like to go outside in the cold to have a cigarette. But she still comes to the club.

Her friend Brad Draisey is also a member. Draisey says he likes the fact that the Legion helps so many others.

"We put a lot of money into the community we help the police department," says Draisey. "We donated land over here for the veterans park. We do a lot of good things. The more money we make, the more money goes into the community."

Draisey and Peterson aren't blaming their losses on members who choose to take their money elsewhere. Instead, they say the problem is a law that oversteps its bounds.

Bartender Mary Voss who says she grew up in a military family, says the smoking ban is particularly offensive to veterans.

"Right after the smoking ban took effect, I had a young man come in in his cammies and his dad came in and they each ordered a beer," says Voss. "He went to light up a cigarette and I told him he couldn't smoke. Do you know that poor man just came in from Baghdad that day? Does anybody know what it's like to have to tell someone who's fighting for us that they can't even smoke in their own club? That just made me sick."

Voss says she hopes the county commissioners will change it's ordinance to allow smoking in private clubs like hers. She says they'll pursue an exemption. However Legions in Minneapolis, Bloomington and Golden Valley would still be smoke free because those cities have their own, stricter bans.

So far, it's been hard to judge how much of an impact the eight month old county smoking ban has had on bars and restaurants. Small bars are more likely than larger establishments to have seen decreased sales.

Some critics of the ban say thousands of jobs and millions of dollars have been lost. However, state economic and employment data don't support those claims.