Bill proposes smoke-free workplaces

A 2002 poll conducted by the Minnesota Smoke-Free Coalition found that 79 percent of voters favored a ban on smoking.

by Stephanie Kudrle

Bar employee Katy Sopoci and her co-workers deal with the inconveniences of secondhand smoke whenever they are at work.

“Every night there are complaints about itchy eyes and scratchy throats,” Sopoci said. “It just makes us feel sick.”

Sopoci, an employee at Loring Pasta Bar and a nonsmoker, supports a new bill that will ban smoking in all workplaces in Minnesota, including restaurants and bars.

The bill defines a workplace as an establishment that employs two or more people.

Proposed by House and Senate members, the bill would be an addition to the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act and is receiving praise and criticism.

Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, one of the bill’s co-authors, said the bill was modeled after a New York state law banning smoking in workplaces last year.

New York, California and three other states have laws requiring restaurants and bars to be smoke-free.

Latz said the bill will reduce health-care costs associated with tobacco and protect restaurant employees and patrons from secondhand smoke.

“Smoking accounts for 5 or 10 cents of every dollar spent on health care in Minnesota,” he said.

The bill received its first reading in the House on Monday and will be given to a committee for review. Latz said the Senate’s Health and Human Services Policy Committee will hear the bill in March.

He said he is trying to build support for the bill in the House, but expects some opposition from restaurants and bars.

House Assistant Minority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said the bill is too inclusive and intrudes on private businesses.

He said individual communities should decide whether restaurants go smoke-free.

“Every community is different,” Sertich said. “The one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work.”

Sertich said business owners will recognize a huge demand for smoke-free restaurants if there is one and can make their own decisions about eliminating smoking.

Latz said restaurants might be reluctant to go smoke-free on their own.

“If the ban is in an isolated community, there is a fear that customers will leave and go where smoking is not banned,” Latz said. “A statewide ban eliminates that problem.”

Although the bill’s supporters maintain that banning smoking will not have a large impact on restaurant business, some bar owners think otherwise.

Sue Jeffers, Stub & Herbs owner, is opposed to the bill because it restricts business owners’ rights.

“I don’t think they should have the right to tell us what we can and can’t do with our businesses,” Jeffers said. “It’s part of doing business. There are many places to work where there are smoke-free environments.”

She said banning smoking would have an effect on bars’ revenue and might force smaller businesses to close.

“It’s a legal product and we should be able to sell and smoke it,” she said.

First-year student Craig Rentmeester and his friends reacted negatively to banning smoking in bars and restaurants.

“It’s just not right,” Rentmeester said. “They should just have separate sections.”

His friend, first-year student Chris Wang, wouldn’t mind family restaurants going smoke-free, but said bars would likely lose business if smoking is banned.

“You’ve got to have smoking in bars,” he said.

But some smokers wouldn’t mind going outside to have their cigarettes.

“It’s not a big deal,” first-year student Brittany Lassanske said. “You can’t smoke in most places anyway.”

Inhaling secondhand smoke can be equivalent to smoking cigarettes, according to the American Heart Association.

Twenty minutes of exposure can equal smoking a pack a day, and two hours of inhaling secondhand smoke can lead to irregular heartbeats, according to the association.

Jeremy Hanson, public policy director for the Minnesota Smoke-Free Coalition, said 3,000 nonsmokers die each year from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke.

In trying to improve public health, the original Clean Indoor Air Act, enacted in 1975, created smoking and nonsmoking sections in restaurants.

Although the bill has been modified during the last 30 years, Hanson said it falls behind a national trend toward smoke-free workplaces.

A 2002 poll conducted by the coalition found that 79 percent of 800 Minnesota voters surveyed support laws requiring smoke-free workplaces.

The survey also found that 75 percent of the voters would choose smoke-free restaurants over smoking restaurants. Thirty-four percent would eat out more often if restaurants were smoke-free.

Approximately 25 percent of restaurants in the state are already smoke-free, according to the Web site for Hospitality Minnesota, the umbrella organization for the Minnesota Restaurant, Hotel & Lodging and Resort & Campground Associations.

According to the site, 22 percent of restaurant and bar employees support a smoking ban.