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St. Paul set to impose smoking ban

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Bar owners in St. Paul have used a ban in Minneapolis to competitive advantage. That will end when the St. Paul City Council passes a more stringent smoking ban. (MPR Photo/Jim Bickal)
The St. Paul City Council is expected to approve a total smoking ban in all public places. The ordinance would set the city apart from the rest of Ramsey County, where some bars are exempt from the smoking ban. The tighter city ban is supported by a majority of the City Council, and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says he will sign it.

St. Paul, Minn. — Despite the political support for a city-wide smoking ban, many St. Paul bar owners are expressing their displeasure with the proposed prohibition.

At the first of two public hearings in early December, more than 100 bar owners showed up at City Hall to testify.

Tony Chesak, of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, used his three minutes of testimony to show a short video.

Chesak set the nostalgic, mournful tune to images of the city's nearly 200 bars. Without words, Chesak visual aid was meant as a brief farewell to the city's bars, which his organization has said will go out of business under a strict ban.

Bar owner Patrick Fluery was more straightforward in his approach. He accused the City Council of "not giving a damn" about bar owners. He says St. Paul bar owners would suffer needlessly if the council passes a restrictive ban like the one in Minneapolis.

"I have watched grown men and women testify in front of council members and the public, crying," he said. "Breaking down and crying because they are losing their businesses and their livelihood. It is going to happen to these people, and it's going to happen probably to me."

"That's a vast overstatement," says City Council member Dave Thune. "In Minneapolis, the ban is proceeding very well. In Bloomington it's doing very well. Around the country, it works just fine."

Thune authored the ordinance and has been pushing a total ban for the city since 2004. However, he's not unsympathetic to the bar owners.

"I understand completely. Their homes are probably mortgaged to run their business, and I'd be scared too. What we're trying to tell them is that we're not going to let them just sit there out on a limb and drive them out of business. We want to help them stay," he said.

Thune says the city will offer bar owners grant money to adapt to the ban. Thune suggests, for example, that a bar could ask for city help to expand its menu, kitchen or an outdoor service area.

But smoking ban foes like Tony Chesak are skeptical. He and others have asked the city to delay implementation of the ban until 2007.

"We'd be more supportive of that because it gives time to fix their business to where it would be something they could conform to," according to Chesak. "Yes, we'd like to see the ban go away, but we're realists about this, and we understand the possibility of it happening is there, but the enactment date is something that we're definitely concerned about."

Chesak and others also say a later date would give lawmakers enough time to pass a comprehensive statewide ban.

Thune says the best way to get the Legislature to pass such a ban is for the state's two largest cities -- Minneapolis and St. Paul -- to show that the ban works and the public wants it.

For now the Twin Cities metro area has patchwork of smoking bans.

St. Paul currently falls under Ramsey County's ban which allows exemptions for bars and clubs that sell more liquor than food.

Hennepin County recently rolled back its strict ban to mirror the Ramsey County ban, while Minneapolis has one of the strictest bans in the state.

Council member Thune says he's convinced second-hand smoke is a killer, and a strict ban will create a healthier environment for residents.

"The city has an obligation to protect the public health, whether it be from unsanitary food conditions to, as we're now going to to, the air they breathe. So we will be passing this and the public will be served by it," according to Thune.

The smoking ban is expected to pass by a 4-to-3 margin. Once signed by Mayor Coleman, it would go into effect March 31.