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Paynesville Press - March 2, 2005

Meeker County holds smoking ban public hearing

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

The Meeker County Board of Commissioners announced last week - before a three-and-a-half hour public hearing - that they would wait for the Minnesota Legislature to enact a statewide smoking ban before acting on a proposed county ordinance that would prevent smoking indoors.

At the start of the public hearing, on Tuesday, Feb. 22, in Litchfield, board chairman Jim Swenson told the packed auditorium that the county board would wait and see what the legislature does before deciding on the proposed ordinance for Meeker County, which would ban smoking in "public places" and "places of work," including bars and restaurants.

The public hearing drew statewide media attention and attracted more than 300 concerned residents to the Human Services Building in Litchfield with more than 60 speakers sharing their opinions about the proposed ordinance.

Two organizations - Citizens for a Smoke-Free Meeker County (who support the proposed ban) and Citizens for the Right to Choose (who oppose it) wore pins depicting their groups' logos to the public hearing. Supporters of the ban cited health issues as the main reason the county should pass the ordinance, while opponents of the ban argued that a smoking ban would hurt Meeker County businesses, especially bars and restaurants, because smokers would simply take their business out of the county.

There are still three days left to make official comments to the Meeker County Board of Commis-sioners, until Friday, March 4. Comments can be mailed to: Paul Virnig, County Administrator, at 325 N. Sibley Avenue, Litchfield, MN 55355. Comments can also be faxed at 320-293-5287 or e-mailed to

Currently both houses of the Minnesota Legislature are considering a statewide smoking ban. The House version would allow smoking in some bars (defined as a business that sells more liquor than food), while the Senate version is more comprehensive and would not allow exceptions to the ban. Both the House and the Senate bills have passed committee, but neither has been approved by the full House or Senate yet.

If a statewide smoking ban is passed, the Meeker County Board of Commissioners would then discuss their options for a county ban, said Swenson. The county board could just let the statewide law enact a smoking ban. Or the board could still pass a more stringent county ordinance, eliminating exemptions that the state might allow.

Or neither the county nor the state could opt to pass a smoking ban.

Meeker County's 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 comprehensive 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 group used grant money from the state's tobacco settlement to back their cause. Supporters of the smoking ban include public health officials, the Meeker County Memorial Hospital Board of Directors, and Citizens for a Smoke-Free Meeker County.

Most bars and restaurants in the county have joined forces to oppose the ban. The Litchfield VFW, the Litchfield American Legion, the Watkins VFW, the Eden Valley Lions, and the Litchfield Chamber of Commerce have approved resolutions opposing the proposed ban.

Secondhand smoke causes disease and death, Dr. Deb Peterson, chief of staff at the Meeker County Memorial Hospital, told the board in support of the proposed ban. For some people - especially those with respiratory illnesses - secondhand smoke can worsen their conditions. Dr. Dave Detert told the board that he tells his smoking patients, in jest: "Smoking makes you sick, but I appreciate the business."

None of the ban opponents argued that secondhand smoke was healthy, but the solution was not to make bars and restaurants smokefree because patronizing these business is a choice.

An environmental consultant noted that lots of everyday items - including cell phones, microwave ovens, electric blankets, and hair driers - also have health risks but are not regulated. "We live in a world of carcinogens," he said.

Jim Watt, of Litchfield, a former bartender, told the board that he believes nobody really understands just how much smoke a bartender inhales. He described how he developed smoker's symptoms, including a smoker's cough, though he never smoked himself. He was relieved when California, where he formerly lived, passed a smoking ban in 1998. Other waitresses and bartenders described how they didn't like working around smoke, but they felt they had no choice because of the flexible hours or good tips they received.

Bar owner Hugh Wagner gathered more than 800 signatures against the smoking ban, he told the county board. A comprehensive smoking ban would hurt business in Meeker County bars and restaurants, he said. The people asking for a ban don't have a clue how our businesses operate, he added.

Supporters of the ban asserted that it would not hurt bar and restaurant businesses but would have the opposite effect: more non-smoking customers would frequent establishments than before.

Daman Ewald, a Litchfield resident, explained how he recently spent over $80 in Hutchinson during an afternoon with his family because the bowling alley in Hutch is smoke-free on Sundays. Because his wife and child have asthma, they can't go to places that allow smoking, he said. If a ban is passed, Ewald said his family would spend more time and money in local establishments.

Smoking ban opponents believe that it would hurt bars and restaurants, with smoking patrons taking their business to establishments where they will be allowed to smoke, across the county line.

One bartender said she depends on tips for a large part of her income. Many of her customers have told her that they would go to another bar if they can't smoke. Loosing tips would would make it difficult or impossible to take care of her children, she added.

Barry Albright, co-owner of the Valley Inn, is sure that his patrons will simply go across the street to smoke with their drinks. Since Eden Valley lies partly in Meeker County and partly in Stearns County, this means smoking customers of the Valley Inn could just go down the street to smoke if the county ban is enacted.

Albright asked a group of supporters how many really believed the ban would improve bar business by encouraging non-smokers to visit. All of the group raised their hands. When Albright asked how many of the same group were willing to put $500 into a kitty to offset any losses that bars encounter if they are wrong, no hands went up.

To support their opinion that a smoking ban was necessary, Citizens for a Smoke-Free Meeker County conducted a telephone survey of 400 registered Meeker County voters. The survey, which was administered by a national polling organization, revealed that 74 percent of those polled supported a county-wide smoking ban.

Ross Amundson - a Paynesville attorney who is another co-owner of the Valley Inn - told the board that he didn't question the poll results at first. But the more he thought about it, the more he came to believe that the results could be skewed. By asking questions in a certain way, the answers to survey questions could be swayed, he said.

Another Meeker County resident also questioned the poll results. "How many people here took part in the poll?" he asked a section of the audiences sporting "Right to Choose" buttons. No hands were raised. A seeming majority at the public hearing wore "Right to Choose" buttons.

Several supporters of the proposed ban pleaded with the board to pass the ordinance without exceptions, as allowing smoking in bars but not bars and grills, for instance, would be confusing and would pit businesses against each other.

Opponents of the ban asserted that a county ban would do just that - pit businesses in Meeker County, where smoking was prohibited, against businesses in surrounding counties where smoking was still permitted. "Please don't send our customers to another county," pleaded a bar manager in Litchfield.

The county board set a 10-day period for official public comments after the hearing. This period ends on Friday, March 4.

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