Statewide changes could nullify smoking ban
The Minnesota Department of Health's lengthy process to update the state's 25-year-old law banning or limiting smoking in schools, hospitals, child care centers, sports arenas, businesses and restaurants is nearing conclusion.
The anticipated changes, which are under review by the Ventura administration, are expected to require a more stringent separation between smoking and nonsmoking sections in restaurants.
Although the governor has yet to sign off on the Health Department's recommendations, one of the final steps in making them law, the new rules have become a factor in the protracted debate over Duluth's bedeviled ordinance.
That angers health advocates, who argue that the Department of Health's proposed changes to the Clean Indoor Air Act fall short of protecting patrons and wait staff from toxic elements in secondhand smoke.
Duluth City Councilor Rob Stenberg favors scrapping the city's four-month-old ordinance, which prohibits smoking sections -- with a number of exceptions. Some restaurant owners have openly disregarded the the ban.
Stenberg argues, instead, that Duluth should mirror the soon-to-be modified statewide smoking restrictions.
Bans are better, argue health advocates. They say cities such as Duluth make a difference by passing tough ordinances that go beyond Minnesota's statutes.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm agrees; but the health de- partment lacks the legal authority to outright ban smoking in restaurants, she said.
The Legislature passed Minnesota's Clean Indoor Air Act in 1975, allowing restaurant patrons to smoke under certain conditions. Legislators in St. Paul have the power to ban smoking in restaurants and by law, so do cities. Moose Lake became Minnesota's first city to do so, and Duluth followed suit shortly after.
Malcolm said the Clean Indoor Air Act sets the minimum safety standard for exposure to secondhand smoke. She supports legislation or city ordinances that go further.
"The only way to fully protect workers from secondhand smoke is to ban it,'' said Georg Fischer, research scientist and indoor air specialist for the Department of Health. "We aren't able to do that.''
But cities and towns can and should ban smoking, said Jeremy Hanson, advocacy director for the Minnesota Smokefree Coalition.
New ventilation technology, one of the solutions proposed in the Health Department's changes to the Clean Indoor Air Act, may remove the smell and sight of smoke, but can't fully remove lingering toxic compounds, he said.
As it stands, the Clean Indoor Air Act's standards simply separate smokers and nonsmokers by a 56-inch wall or a 4-foot space between the two sections.
Drafts of proposed changes to the law crafted by the health department seek to further isolate smokers by trying to divide a restaurant's air supply -- either by placing smokers in a fully enclosed room, or by mandating the direction air moves in a restaurant. It would go from nonsmoking toward smokers only.
The suggested rules forbid restaurants from recirculating smoking section air. They also stipulate that the air pressure around smokers must be low enough to draw air away from other sections.
University of Minnesota cancer researcher Dr. Stephen Hecht argues the Health Department's proposed changes appear unworkable. Short of a ban similar to California's, which completely prohibits smoking in restaurants and bars, nonsmoking workers and patrons who dine with smokers face exposure to cancer-causing materials, he said.
Fischer acknowledges concerns of critics such as Hecht, who say the new regulation won't do enough.
"Is it as effective as a ban?'' he said. "Nothing can be as effective as a ban. It's the next best thing.''
For his part, Stenberg sees the Health Department's proposed changes as a solution to Duluth's confusing law.
Stenberg hopes that mimicking Minnesota's proposed changes will keep Duluth on equal footing with other communities so that tourists don't opt to spend time elsewhere because of the city's confusing smoking ban, he said.
Health matters, but so do economics, Stenberg continued.
"This issue is not just a smoking issue,'' he said, "or a health issue, or an economic issue or any one of the different buzz phrases you've heard thrown around during this debate.
"I think it's all of those.''