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Paynesville Press - Febtuary 9, 2005

Meeker County proposing smoking ban

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Smoking in "public places" and "places of work" in Meeker County could soon be illegal. The Meeker County Board of Commissioners is considering a smoking ban that would eliminate smoking in bars, restaurants, shops, and offices.

A public hearing about the proposed smoke-free ordinance is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 2 p.m. at the Meeker County Family Services Building in Litchfield. At the public hearing, county residents will have the opportunity to learn about the proposed ordinance, ask questions, and voice their concerns or support.

The proposed ordinance would ban smoking in any enclosed indoor area frequented by the general public or having two or more workers, including restaurants; bars; retail stores; offices and other commercial establishments; public transportation; hospitals; auditoriums; arenas; meeting rooms; and common areas of apartment buildings.

Smoking would also be banned within five feet of the entrances of public places.

The drive for a smoking ban in Meeker County was spearheaded by the Citizens for a Smoke-Free Meeker County, a coalition backed by Meeker County Public Health. The coalition looks at smoking as a serious public health risk, said Lisa Hicks-Ewald, the spokesperson for Citizens for a Smoke-Free Meeker County, who also works for Meeker County Public Health.

According to studies, secondhand smoke causes many of the same health problems that smoking does, including cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, said Hicks-Ewald. By eliminating smoking in public places, employees and visitors alike would benefit, she added.

The coalition, according to Hicks-Ewald, using a grant funded by the state's settlement with tobacco companies, looked at different ways to reduce smoking in the county, including sponsoring volunteer smoke-free nights at local bars and restaurants, offering assistance to smokers who wanted to quit, and endorsing policies that would ban smoking.

A smoking ban would protect employees, Hicks-Ewald stressed.

To support their opinion that a smoking ban was necessary, the coalition conducted a telephone survey of 400 registered Meeker County voters. The survey, which was administered by The Mellman Group, Inc., revealed that 74 percent of those polled supported a county-wide smoking ban.

The survey showed that 84 percent of people surveyed considered secondhand smoke a health hazard (with 60 percent of those polled believing secondhand smoke was a serious or moderate health hazard), and 80 percent of those polled believing that employees and customers should be protected from secondhand smoke.

Diane Rohrbeck, who owns the Manannah Hilltop Tavern, believes the survey results are misleading. With more than 13,000 voters in Meeker County, she doesn't believe the 400 people polled is a fair sampling, she said.

Ross Amundson, an attorney in Paynesville and an owner of the Valley Inn, a bar and grill in Eden Valley, believes that surveys can be made to say anything and that the health studies are misleading because spouses of smokers, not employees where smoking is allowed, are most at risk to disease caused by secondhand smoke.

Supporters of the ban, including Hicks-Ewald, believe a ban would benefit businesses by attracting more non-smoking customers. Opponents, however, believe the ban could hurt their businesses.

Since the county line between Meeker and Stearns runs through Eden Valley, Amundson thinks the Valley Inn, which is located in Meeker County, would be most unfairly affected by the proposed ban. Just blocks away, smoking would still be allowed in the other bar and grill in Eden Valley, since it is located in Stearns County.

If smoking is banned in Meeker County, Amundson believes people will simply move two blocks down the street to where smoking is allowed. Bar patrons will find a place where they can drink and smoke, he said.

In places where the nearest bar that allows smoking isn't so close, Amundson fears that smokers would drive to a place where they could smoke and that some of these people would be more likely to drive while intoxicated.

Everyone who goes to a bar knows that drinking and smoking are commonplace, said Amundson. As for bar employees, they know when they go to work at an establishment that serves alcohol that they will likely be exposed to secondhand smoke from bar patrons. Most of the 20 employees at the Valley Inn are smokers, he added.

Rhorbeck agreed that her smoking patrons will likely find other places to go. She also fears that a smoking ban in the county would eventually lead to a ban on selling cigarettes in the county, which would lead to a loss in income for her own business, as well as others.

Rhorbeck would consider a compromise. Before the ban was proposed, she considered installing an exhaust system that would remove much of the smoke from the air. The Valley Inn also could offer a non-smoking room with doors for diners as a compromise, said Amundson. He believes a statewide smoking ban would be more fair, though he does not support it, either.

A statewide ban on smoking, which has been proposed in the 2005 legislative session, would be better than a county ban, Rhorbeck agreed.

The "Freedom to Breath Act 2005" was proposed in the Minnesota House of Representatives by Rep. Doug Meslow (R-White Bear Lake). The original bill proposed a ban on all smoking in public. However, a scaled-down version of the bill, which was amended and passed by the House Health Policy and Finance Committee, and would ban smoking in bars and restaurants that sell more food than alcohol.

A Senate version of the bill is currently in committee.

A statewide ban on smoking would not override the proposed Meeker County Ban because the county proposal is more stringent than the state's, according to Meeker County administrator Paul Virnig. But compromise is still a possibility, he added. The reason the county holds public hearings is to gauge public opinions, he said. And the county commissioners can't act on the ordinance until they know how the public feels about it, he added.

Rhorbeck feels the public should have more say than speaking out at a public hearing. She believes the county should hold a referendum to see how the county's voters really feel, she said.

It's hard to say if a smoking ban in Meeker County will be passed, according to Virnig, or when it would go into effect. The process might take some time, as the public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 22, is just the starting point, he said. Depending on the turnout and the response to the ban, more surveys or hearings may be warranted before the commissioners vote on the matter, Virnig added.

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