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Paynesville Press - July 20, 2005

Meeker County approves smoking ban

By Melissa Andrie

A smoke-free ordinance was passed by the Meeker County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, July 12, and will take effect at the beginning of October.

The proposed ordinance, entitled the Meeker County Smoke-Free Public Places and Places of Work Ordinance, was amended before being passed at the meeting. The ordinance prohibits smoking in public places, including restaurants and places of work, though some exemptions - including one for bars - have been included.

"Places of work," as defined in the ordinance, are all places indoors where at least two employees cover at least two full-time positions. A provision allows a separate smoking area in a detached structure for employees to smoke while not working. Such a structure must be clearly labeled and a separate break area for non-smoking employees must be provided.

"Public places" where smoking is now banned are defined as enclosed indoor areas open to the general public and include "restaurants and other facilities serving food or alcohol, retail stores, offices and other commercial facilities, public conveyances, educational facilities other than public schoolsŠhospitals, auditoriums, arenas, meeting rooms, and common areas of rental apartment buildings."

Smoking within five feet of "entrances, exits, open windows, and ventilation intakes" of the facilities above is also prohibited.

Private residences, which include home offices if primarily used by someone living in the home, are not affected. The ordinance also does not extend to motor vehicles, guest rooms in places of lodging, and outdoor areas not within five feet of areas mentioned above.

Bars - defined as establishments having a liquor license as of Tuesday, July 12 - and a few other establishments can apply for exemptions good until July 31, 2007. For an exemption to be granted, no minors employed by a bar may work in rooms where smoking is allowed. Minors will be allowed to work in kitchens of such facilities as well as in other rooms separate from smoking areas, and minors not employed by a bar are permitted.

Exemptions, which will cost $150 and are due by Saturday, Sept. 10, are also available for restaurants, when closed to the public for private gatherings, and private clubs, unless open to non-members. (Guests accompanying members count as members for purposes of the ordinance.)

To be considered a private club, an organization must be incorporated, have more than 50 members, have owned or rented a space for its members for at least one year, have organized leadership, and must not limit membership according to "race, color, creed, religion or national origin." Any organization created with the sole purpose of meeting this exemption is not exempt from the ban, however.

Exemption forms will be available from the Meeker County Auditor, and exemptions can be transferred with the sale of the establishment's liquor license. If an application for exemption is denied, the ordinance provides for an appeals process.

Appropriate signs must be posted by proprietors or management informing the general public of an establishment's status as smoking or non-smoking. Violation of the ordinance by failure to comply with its provisions is a petty misdemeanor with a fine of up to $300. Consecutive days of violation count as separate offenses, and further violations merit a fine of up to $1,000.

In the 4-1 vote, board members Dave Gabrielson, Jim Swenson, Hugh Wagner (whose district includes Manannah Township and the city of Eden Valley), and Amy Wilde supported the ordinance.

Commissioner Ron Kutzke (whose district includes Swede Grove and Union Grove townships) opposed the ban.

The ordinance has created a lot of contention among citizens of the county, and a public hearing attracted over 300 citizens to discuss it in February.

Supporters of the ordinance included Citizens for a Smoke-Free Meeker County, which is backed by the Meeker County Public Health Department and the Meeker County Memorial Hospital Board of Directors. In February, they argued for a ban based on health protection for employees and patrons, citing the relationship between second-hand smoke and cancer, heart disease, low birth weight, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Also suggested by proponents was the possibility that enactment of a smoking ban would help local businesses due to increased revenue from non-smoking customers.

Opponents of the ordinance questioned the validity of statistics used by supporters and argued that the ordinance might drive smoking customers to neighboring counties. The ban was criticized as particularly harmful to establishments near Meeker County lines, since no bordering counties have such a ban.

Since the February meeting, amendments to the ordinance have included the option to transfer exemptions, a requirement for bars to own a liquor license currently, and a relaxation of bar exemption requirements.

Since the February meeting, an exemption was added to the ordinance which was further ammended to comprise with those concerned about harming local businesses. In prior versions of the ordinance, to be considered a bar, an establishment needed a liquor license with over 50 percent of food and beverage sales coming from liquor, and no minors could be admitted at any time. Before the amendments, bars by this definition could apply for exemptions only if separated from any restaurant area by full-height walls and operated under a separate ventilation system, among other conditions. A prior version of the ordinance was supported on a 3-2 vote, but the final version with broader exemption rules was passed 4-1.

Some board members expressed concerns at the Tuesday, July 5, meeting that a smoking ban was not in the power of the county. (Since secondhand-smoke is a health issue, it can be addressed by the county. ) Others said that a statewide ban - which was acknowledged to be more fair by both critics and supporters of the proposed Meeker County ordinance at the February hearing - would probably not pass unless counties enacted bans first to put pressure on the state legislature.

Regulations from the Meeker County Smoke-Free Public Places and Places of Work Ordinance are in addition to those in the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act and other laws. That act was passed in 1975 and restricts smoking in health care and daycare facilities, public schools, restaurants, bars, and places of work.

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