St. Paul ban on smoking begins

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It began one year ago in Minneapolis and Bloomington, and happened again at 12:01 a.m. today in St. Paul.

The ban on smoking in St. Paul bars, restaurants, pool halls, bowling alleys and bingo halls went into effect this morning, after a 4-3 vote by the St. Paul City Council in January. Ramsey County has had a partial smoking ban — dependant on how much food is served — since March 31, 2005.

On Wednesday a group of 16 St. Paul business owners’ challenge against the ordinance to suspend temporarily the start of the ban was denied by Ramsey County District Court.

The owners said the anti-smoking ordinance would cause serious financial loss to their businesses and that the city does not have the authority to create an absolute ban on smoking, according to the order denying their request.

Last year, a group of Minneapolis and Bloomington bar owners brought a similar suit against Hennepin County, Bloomington and Minneapolis before those bans went into effect.

“People try those lawsuits again and again,” St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune said. “And again, the courts throw them out.

“There is, in fact, a strong public purpose for smoking controls and it has nothing to do with any of the things that they sue over,” Thune said.

St. Paul City Attorney John Choi said the city prevailed because the plaintiffs didn’t make their case.

“It was a good ruling for the city because it essentially validates the decision of the City Council and the mayor,” he said.

Dutch Erkenbrack, owner of Minnehaha Lanes, was among the 16 owners to bring the lawsuit. For 35 years he worked for a large bowling business and said he saw the effects of the smoking bans in New York and California.

“It devastated the industry,” he said. And when Minneapolis’ smoking ban went into effect, he saw an increase in the number of bowlers at his business.

After finishing his cigarette on the University’s St. Paul campus, junior Jake Nielsen said that when he writes or studies, he smokes like a chimney.

“If I’m in the library,” he said, “I have to pack up everything to go out and have a smoke.”

But he said the smoking bans don’t bother him, especially because most bars and restaurants don’t have a problem with people stepping outside to smoke.

That’s not the case though for businesses like Minnehaha Lanes.

“It’s unfortunate that I’m in a business where my customers can’t just step outside and have a cigarette like they can in a bar,” Erkenbrack said. “They’re wearing bowling shoes and most of them are in leagues.”

If one person on a league team smokes, the whole team of five will choose a bowling alley where smoking is permitted, he said.

The City Council is willing to compromise with the bar owners by offering loans or grants — to expand their kitchens and provide entertainment — easing them into the ban, Thune said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a bowling alley or a bar or a private club,” Thune said. “You’ve got employees that work there and they just shouldn’t have to breathe that stuff. It goes way beyond a convenience.”

The city ordinance cites tobacco smoke as a leading cause of health problems among nonsmokers and intends to “protect the public health, welfare and safety by better ensuring the ability of citizens to breathe safe and uncontaminated air” and “affirm that the right to breathe has priority over the desire to smoke.”

Erkenbrack said he doesn’t think the government should be able to regulate whether people can smoke.

“There are a lot of people out there who think we don’t know how to live our own lives,” he said. “They’re going to figure out how to make us do it their way … and too many of them are getting elected.”

Jessica Kraker, a statistics graduate student, said she likes the idea of banning smoking, but thinks it should be an option for businesses, not a requirement. Being a nonsmoking bar or restaurant could be used as a marketing tool, she said.

And while she said smoking in bars would be acceptable, she finds smoking in restaurants annoying. She said she would like a smoking ban in bowling alleys because they can be a family environment.

The businesses’ lawsuit also alleged that the city of St. Paul does not have the authority to make a smoking ban in the interest of public health, but instead that public health legislation should be made by Ramsey County.

“We always contended and still feel that the city certainly does have the authority to regulate for public health,” Choi said. “And the judge agrees.”

The judge’s decision meant that this morning the business owners who contested the ban in court and all other liquor establishments and restaurants had to tell their customers to put out their cigarettes.

“At 12:01 (a.m.), with two hours left to go in the bowling and bar business, my manager on duty’s going to have to go to all the people that are smoking and ask them to put it out or leave,” Erkenbrack said Thursday.

“You’ve got people who’ve been in there having a good time and drinking, and all of a sudden midnight comes. That’s going to be a pretty difficult thing to do,” he said. “I think the police will probably be pretty busy.”

He also said that after a smoking ban, businesses sometimes rebound once they’ve attracted a new customer base. But Minnehaha Lanes has been operating on small margins and doesn’t have the time, manpower or advertising budget to rebound if it’s hit too hard by the ban, Erkenbrack said.

Thune said the council worked with Minneapolis to coordinate and model their bans together.

“We figure we’re in this together and we really want to make this a broad thing, not a patchwork,” he said.

Broadening the ban to include St. Paul brings the state one step closer to its goal of creating a statewide ban, Thune said.

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