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Panel supports smoking ban

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ST. PAUL - Opponents of a smoking ban charged supporters were "social engineers" who would hurt businesses - especially small, rural ones - but backers of a ban prevailed Thursday in the first legislative debate on the subject this year.

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After more than two hours of testimony and debate, the ban passed the Minnesota House Health and Human Services Committee on a surprisingly easy 12-6 vote. The bill would ban smoking in businesses such as bars and restaurants - including private clubs - much like it already is banned in public buildings.

The proposal is as far as supporters think they can go now.

"I would love to change the world and get rid of tobacco all together," bill author Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said. "This is a step along the way."

The bill still must go through a number of House and Senate committees, with one of its toughest challenges coming in a House commerce committee on its next stop.

"We did a little better than we thought," Huntley said following Thursday's vote.

Huntley emphasized that his bill would make bars, restaurants and clubs safer for workers.

"My No. 1 concern is the worker protection part of this bill," he said.

Smoking would not be allowed in most businesses, including workplaces and vehicles used for work. However, tribal casinos are not included.

The business owner and the smoker both would be fined if someone lights up, but the owner would face a stiffer penalty.

Forty percent of the state already has local smoking bans. This year's legislative debate follows failed previous years' efforts, but a Democratic-controlled House is expected to look more favorably on the ban than ones under GOP control for the past eight years. Gov. Tim Pawlenty supports a ban.

At least one ban opponent admitted he was fighting a lost cause, and offered committee members options to make it less offensive to bar and restaurant owners.

Steven Watson of the Minnesota Restaurant Association suggested, for instance, that smokers should be the ones fined, not business owners. He also said the state should offer businesses affected by the ban a tax break to make up for an expected loss of revenue.

The Democrat-controlled committee turned back all attempts to amend the bill, including one by DFLer Mary Ellen Otremba of Long Prairie. Otremba wanted to require bar and restaurant owners to install better air-handling equipment to get rid of smoke; banning smoking, she said, would doom many businesses.

"One person at a time will be displaced," Otremba, the only Democrat to vote against the ban, said to a hushed and packed committee room. "There will be family restaurants closing. ... It will be a tremendous loss to that family."

An air-handling engineer, Mark Wernimont, and bar owners told committee members that smoke can be removed from the air to prevent it being a danger.

But the Mayo Clinic's Dr. Richard Hurt, one of the leading anti-smoking experts in the country, said it would take suction as powerful as a tornado to rid a room of smoke before it presented a danger.

"This is a proposal that is all about social engineering," Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, said.

He sarcastically added that the state next should outlaw running with scissors.

"This country is built on freedom and with freedom comes personal responsibility," Emmer said.

Sue Jeffers, a Minneapolis bar owner and 2006 governor candidate, said the dangers of second-hand smoke are overblown. "Second-hand smoke is not mustard gas," she said.

But doctors, workers and other ban supporters said it is a real danger. And Huntley said 6,000 Minnesotans die due to smoke each year.

Former hospital worker Bonnie Rose Mintz said there is a strong emphasis on office ergonomics, "yet, the air hasn't been taken into account."

College student Pong Xiong, a Hastings native, told committee members that his Hmong heritage places an emphasis on smoking, but his grandfather gave up the habit and did not allow smoking in his home. He said that influenced his support of the smoking ban.

Sandy Beitsch called legislators hypocrites. "You people all work in an environment that is smoke free," but if they vote against a statewide smoking ban, "you can go find other jobs" like they tell waitresses and bartenders in smoking establishments to do.

Rural Minnesota could be the worst hit by a ban, many lawmakers and witnesses said.

Rep. Neva Walker, who serves an inner city area of Minneapolis, said rural bars cannot afford a ban. Still, she voted for it.

Others said the law needs to allow smoking in bars and restaurants located near other states that allow smoking or Minnesota businesses will close.

"Buildings and organizations adjoining neighboring states will experience a disaster like we did," predicted Dick Kolb, whose Osseo-Maple Grove American Legion club lost business when a local smoking ban began.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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