Smoking bans: Few complaints, fewer finesby Martiga Lohn, Associated Press
St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) Bars here have a big incentive to follow the city's smoking ban. Fines start at $500 and can jeopardize their liquor licenses.
That's what was at stake this week as inspectors Kris Schweinler and Larry Zangs visited Wild Tymes sports bar to look at a smoking tent that hadn't been living up to the smoking ordinance. Zangs' tape-measure calculations would determine whether the tent's layout had been changed to allow enough open air.
The verdict: "We're good," Zangs said. "He can figure his math out."
A statewide smoking ban expected to get a vote in the Minnesota House Thursday would threaten renegade smokers and permissive proprietors with fines of up to $300. However, the history of local smoking bans in six counties and 10 cities suggests such penalties would be rare.
An Associated Press review of enforcement patterns from Bloomington to Beltrami County found few citations for smoking violations. In most places, policing the bans happens only in response to complaints or when inspectors visit for other reasons.
So if Minnesota joins 17 other states in banning smoking in bars and restaurants, don't expect the smoke patrol to sweep nightclubs and bingo halls sniffing for nicotine lovers.
The proposed statewide smoking ban would rely on proprietors of restaurants, bars and other establishments for most enforcement. The bill outlines what they'd have to do in an escalating confrontation with a smoker: First, ask her to stop. Then ask her to leave. If she refuses, "handle the situation consistent with lawful methods for handling other persons acting in a disorderly manner or as a trespasser."
That's how most of the local smoking bans work, too. And most of the problems stop there.
Peer pressure and warnings were enough to get most people to follow the rules, local officials said.
"I had anticipated more problems and we haven't seen it," said Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson, whose north woods city has been under Beltrami County's smoking ban since 2005.
The ban was tightened this year to eliminate after-dinner smoking hours in restaurants and bars. Johnson's records show 37 police and sheriff calls - and no citations - since the ban started. That compares to more than 4,000 calls this year for the Bemidji police alone.
In the southern Minnesota city of Mankato, which outlawed smoking in most bars and restaurants last July, city manager Pat Hentges said he knew of no smokers slapped with fines. If they lit up illegally, they either put out the cigarette or stepped outside when asked.
"There's a fair amount of peer pressure from patrons to say, `Hey, this is a no-smoking place,"' Hentges said.
Stories from officials in the Twin Cities are similar, including those who have enforced smoking bans in Bloomington, Golden Valley and Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
About half the smoking bans in Minnesota - including those in Minneapolis, Bloomington and Moorhead - are enforced by public health or environmental officials, while police and sheriffs are the enforcers in places such as McLeod County, Golden Valley and International Falls.
Inspectors also help carry out the bans while they're checking for compliance with food and other regulations. That's how it works in Bloomington, where inspectors keep an eye out for ashtrays, matches and other evidence of smoking when they make surprise visits to restaurants, said Lynn Moore, environmental health manager.
Still, if no one calls to complain, the smoking enforcers may never know where the rules are being broken, said Jim Farrell, who represents bar owners opposed to smoking bans as head of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.
"There are certain guys who have just done civil disobedience - if a customer wants to smoke they have probably just looked the other way," Farrell said. "When we're talking about smoking in a bar, more than likely there's no one in the bar who has been bothered by the smoke."
Back in downtown St. Paul, Wild Tymes owner John McDonough said he's never caught a customer smoking illegally inside the bar.
"But sometimes you can walk into a bathroom and smell it," McDonough said. "Sometimes on very busy nights after a hockey game, you find a cup or two with a butt in it."
He put up the tent to give smokers some shelter in the only place they're allowed to practice their habit anymore - outside. After meeting the requirements of different smoking bans adopted by Ramsey County, then by St. Paul, McDonough is now waiting to find out whether a statewide smoking ban will change the rules again.