Downtown grapples with smoking ban

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May 17, 2004 // UPDATED 1:36 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell and Sarah McKenzie
Scott Russell and Sarah McKenzie

Proposed ordinance ending smoking in bars and restaurants splits area Councilmembers, workers, customers

A Minneapolis City Council ordinance to ban smoking citywide in bars and restaurants introduced May 14 appears to have the necessary support.

Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward), a smoking ban supporter, said the Health and Human Services Committee she chairs would hold a public hearing on the ordinance Monday, June 7 and the full Council could vote as early as June 18.

It takes seven of 13 councilmembers to pass the ordinance. Six have said they will back the plan, and two others say they are leaning that way.

Announcing their support May 11 were Councilmembers Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Don Samuels (3rd Ward); Johnson Lee; Dean Zimmermann

(6th Ward); Gary Schiff (9th Ward); and Dan Niziolek (10th Ward).

Certain and probable no votes are Councilmembers Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Barb Johnson (4th Ward), Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), Sandy Colvin Roy

(12th Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward), according to interviews and news accounts.

Councilmembers Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) and Scott Benson (11th Ward) say they are leaning toward supporting the bill.

Downtown, with its concentration of bars and restaurants, has a keen interest in the new law. Johnson Lee represents the burgeoning North Washington Avenue and East Bank commercial districts, as well as the Warehouse District. Goodman represents the Central Business District, Convention Center area and Loring Park restaurants.

Smoking is a gut issue for some Councilmembers, including Johnson Lee, who recalled visiting her great grandmother in the hospital. The woman in the adjoining bed was dying, and she had to "struggle and fight to breathe every breath," Johnson Lee said.

"I sat down and talked to her. She said to me, 'If you don't do anything else, whenever you see someone smoking a cigarette, say something to them about their health -- and tell them about me.'"

Samuels said prior to joining the Council, he managed the Spirit of Life Antismoking Coalition for the Minnesota Council of Churches, a program aimed at teens.

"I found people really do want to change," he said. "The overwhelming majority of the public wants smoking to be banned in public spaces."

Swing vote Lilligren described himself variously as "inclined to support the ordinance," and "neutral." He said he wanted to learn more about both the health and economic impacts of ban and to hear from his constituents.

"I worked as a bartender for 20 years," said Lilligren, himself a nonsmoker. "It was always a concern of mine, the second-hand smoke I was exposed to on the job. I always felt I could work someplace else if I needed to. Although I wasn't wild about it, I was able to make an exception in my mind to the smoke-free environment."

Benson, another swing vote, said he was "strongly leaning" toward supporting the ordinance. He recently attended an American Cancer Society donor recognition event as a motivational speaker, he said. Stephen Hecht of the University of Minnesota's Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center spoke on the effects of second-hand smoke.

The Cancer Society event was not tied to the proposed city smoking ban ordinance, Benson said, but "it went a long way to convincing me we should probably do it."

What will R.T. do?

The nose count puts Mayor R.T. Rybak in a powerful, if ticklish, situation. The Council could have seven or eight votes to pass the ordinance but lack the nine votes needed to override his veto.

Rybak -- a self-described environmentalist and antismoker -- is undecided.

The vote may seem like a mayoral no-brainer. Rybak drives a low-polluting hybrid car and touts the conversion of the Riverside coal plant to natural gas as a key air quality issue. He cut his political teeth fighting the Metropolitan Airports Commission on noise pollution and other environmental issues -- in spite of the potential economic consequences.

The mayor said he had also spent time trying to help small businesses and create jobs.

"My family ran a corner business," he said. "I wouldn't have liked somebody putting a restriction on my family that could have threatened that business and ruined our livelihood."

People have already begun stopping him during walks around Lake Harriet and registering their opinions, Rybak said. The smoking ban was important but not his top priority. He is focused on the budget, summer police strategy and the waning days of the Legislature.

Convention impact

The smoking-ban arguments are straightforward, pro and con. Supporters focus on the negative health affects. Second-hand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable deaths, and kills 53,000 nonsmokers nationally each year, according to a statement released by the 3,100-member Hennepin Medical Society,

Niziolek (an allergy sufferer who has problems with second-hand smoke) said the proposed law isn't about a ban. "This is a workplace issue," he said. "This is a public space issue."

Opponents focus on potential lost bar and restaurant customers -- the patrons who smoke who could take their business elsewhere. Some say government should not intrude on private business or personal decisions.

A citywide bar and restaurant smoking ban could make it more difficult to attract national conventions here, said Anthony Lopez,

Minneapolis Convention Center manager. "Anything that restricts attendees typically will have some kind of impact," he said.

A smoking ban could also affect the diversity of restaurants near the Convention Center, Lopez said. To the extent that local bars and eateries lose local smokers' business to the suburbs, the least profitable businesses could go out of business.

Ironically, the Convention Center itself is smoke-free, according to Lopez.

Workers, patrons react

Connie Grover, a bartender at Whitey's saloon, 400 E. Hennepin Ave., supported the proposed smoking ban, saying it would give her more motivation to quit smoking.

"It wouldn't bother me in the least," said Grover, who has worked at the East Bank bar for 22 years and smoked all those years.

Another Whitey's bartender Chad Ferguson, a smoker, had a different take on the smoking ban. "It's better to let the market decide," he said. "I don't think the government should mandate nonsmoking."

Ferguson, who has worked at the bar for more than six years, said the proposal appears inevitable at some point, pointing to other major cities such as New York that have made bars and restaurants smoke-free.

He said some workers complain about the smoke at Whitey's. "A couple of the girls with contacts complain when the cigar club comes in a couple of times a month," he said.

At Block E's GameWorks, 600 Hennepin Ave. S., customer Jason Collins, 27, said he was against the proposed ban.

A self-described video-game addict transfixed by a game of Derby Owners Club, Collins said, "I'm not for it. I think it should be left up to the owners to decide. I think smoking is a private right."

Collins, who had a pack of American Spirits cigarettes at his side, said he planned to kick the habit soon, but said smokers should have places to hang out.

The GameWorks bar and restaurant has bowling and more than 100 other motion-simulated games. It attracts teen and preteen customers who share Collins' obsessions with video games.

At Nye's Polonaise Room, 112 E. Hennepin Ave., one of the smokier East Bank clubs, Mona Connoy sipped a White Russian at the bar.

Connoy, who lives three blocks from Nye's, said she wouldn't be bothered by a smoking ban. She is a nonsmoker who occasionally stops for a cocktail after work.

One of her Northeast bartending friends recently passed away from throat cancer. He worked for 22 years in area bars. "He was never a smoker," she said.

Nye's bartender Gab Nelson, who has worked at the East Bank bar for four years, said he would appreciate a smoking ban. "It would be healthier for me. It's my choice to be here, but people could be more considerate where they blow their smoke," Nelson said.

Jeff Harkins, one of Nelson's customers at the bar, puffed away on a cigarette during the conversation about a smoking ban. Although he wants to be considerate of nonsmokers, he said he didn't want to see the smoking ban pass.

He said, "Restaurants and bars are the last bastions of relaxation. There has to be a place where people can be themselves and do what they want. ... A place where laws don't intrude."

Minneapolis first?

Council opponents all said they prefer a statewide policy to cities acting individually.

The momentum for city action appears to be growing. The St. Paul City Council is already considering a similar ordinance (though a majority of councilmembers have not signed on -- raising the possibility that Minneapolis could approve an ordinance that St. Paul ultimately rejects). One Minneapolis City Hall insider said Bloomington smoking ban backers would introduce their version soon.

Phone calls and e-mails began to deluge Council staff following a Star Tribune story on behind-the-scenes ordinance work.

"The number of people writing to say they support the ban is starting to rival the spam I am getting on Viagra," Zimmermann said.

Zimmermann said the smoking ban represented the "greater public good."

On the other side, Colvin Roy said she doesn't think there is an adult in the country who isn't aware of smoking's dangers. Patrons and business owners should make up their own minds.

"I don't like government meddling," she said.

Ostrow and the mayor said they wanted to give business owners ample time to testify how the ordinance would affect them. Rybak said the proposed vote timeline "seems about right."

Tougher smoking rules outdoors, too

As the City Council considers a smoking ban in restaurants and bars, management at the IDS Center, 80 S. 8th St., has started banning smoking in some outdoor areas around its perimeter.

Since May 1, management has restricted smokers to two designated areas: one area below the skyway on South 8th Street, between Nicollet Mall and Marquette Avenue, and another below a skyway over South 7th Street near the Mall.

Several signs around the building alert people to the designated smoking areas.

An e-mail to tenants from Real Estate Investment Managers, which leases and manages the skyscraper, said, "By restricting smoking to these areas, the main building entrances would be kept clear of smoke, cigarette butts and congestion. We will be placing temporary signage near the entrances to direct individuals to the proper smoking locations."

On a recent afternoon, six people huddled together in the designated outdoor smoking spot on South 8th Street, near one of the tower entrances. A couple of wayward smokers leaned against the building's edge closer to Nicollet Mall, outside the boundary reserved for tobacco lovers.

Kathy Bitterly, a legal secretary for the law firm Kelly & Berens on the building's 37th floor was one of the obedient smokers, content to confine herself to the designated space.

She said she takes a smoke break twice a day.

"I don't mind it," Bitterly said, without the tone her name suggests. "It doesn't bother me."