Smoking ban update: Bar owners go on the attack

St. Paul ban, Pi Press biz story draw ire (surprise!)

Wednesday's public hearing at St. Paul City Hall regarding the city council's third introduction of a total smoking ban brought out the usual arguments on both sides: Ban proponents fretting over the dangers of second-hand smoke, bar owners warning of businesses going up in smoke.

But the battle at this stage has revealed one interesting strategy: Opponents of the ban are looking toward the capitol to push for a statewide ban in the upcoming legislative session.

Not a "total" ban, of course, but rather a so-called "50-50" ban across all of Minnesota. The 50-50 ban, which is what's in effect in St. Paul and Ramsey County, allows smoking in establishments where liquor accounts for more than 50 percent of the sales receipts. According to bar owners, that ban has worked out just fine for sinful imbibers and diners who want a smoke-free feeding--much more so than the stricter bans in Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

"I've been traveling around the state to build consensus on this," confirms Dan O'Gara, owner of O'Gara's in St. Paul. "We've been telling members of the [Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association] that we've got to go to the legislature to get a uniform statewide ban, and most have been agreeable."

O'Gara has seen an uptick in business since the bans in Minneapolis and Hennepin County went into effect April 1; but he nevertheless had been opposed to what he refers to as the "unlevel playing field."

Of course, the strategy is less a symptom of sudden benevolence than political cunning: St. Paul looks poised to adopt a total ban, and Chris Coleman, the mayor-elect, has said that he would sign such an ordinance were it to cross his desk. (The council approved two smoking bans within the last year, and outgoing Mayor Randy Kelly vetoed both of them.)

At the same time, the Hennepin County Board is reviewing its total ban: Last week a committee passed an amendment that appears to provide a 50-50 exemption. The full board of commisioners is set to vote on it on Tuesday, and the committee that passed the amendment is made up of the same exact commissioners on the full board.

In other words, soon enough both cities will have total smoking bans, while the counties they reside in would only have partial ones, which would be "devastating" for bars in both cities, according to O'Gara. (All indications are that Ramsey County's commissioners have little desire to tinker with the 50-50 ban already in place.)

But there is a realpolitik aspect to the push for a statewide ban, namely that a total ban has little chance at the capitol. "Republicans don't like the idea at all," O'Gara says. "I don't think a total ban would even get out of the House."

But, O'Gara and other bar owners point out, they'd be happy if there was a 50-50 ban across the board, and getting some 2,000 members of the MLBA on board could the give the issue some real legs at the lege.

Of course, city ordinances are allowed to have tighter, more-local controls than any state law, and there's no reason that a ban would be amended in Minneapolis--Mayor R.T. Rybak has essentially said that he's not one to sign a repeal or an amendment, and there aren't enough council votes to push such a measure through.

"We think it will pass in St. Paul," O'Gara concedes. "What we're hoping for is that they hold off implementing it."

The strategy, O'Gara says, is to buy time to get a 50-50 statewide ban, and hope that municipalties will go along with that. If bar owners aren't successful in getting the statewide ban by July 1, 2007, they're willing to concede defeat on the local level.

It all sounds very pie-in-the-sky, but some kind of compromise may have appeal for local politicos and lawmakers alike. "For two years I've been fighting city councils on this," notes Charles Senkler, the owner of Fabulous Fern's in St. Paul who has been active in ban politics on both sides of the river. "We want it to be clear that if there's a 50-50 statewide, we're done. We won't fight anymore."

Tuesday's Pioneer Press story showing that there was little negative economic impact from the patchwork smoking bans was not, predictably, very popular with bar owners like O'Gara and Senkler.

More than one called the paper's analysis "bullshit," even though the story appeared to have some of the most thorough local research dedicated to smoking ban economics.

But many were eager to point out flaws in the research. The study, for example, only looked at second quarter figures--too narrow of a scope, according to most tavern keepers.

"They took into account all liquor sales, including off-sale," O'Gara notes. "All that can mean is that liquor stores are doing better business."

Senkler echoed the sentiment: "If you're not going to smoke at a bar, you're just going to get off work, pick up a 12-pack and some cigs and go home."

Perhaps. But O'Gara and others also noted that many establishments in Hennepin County had raised prices to compensate for the smaller customer base since the ban.

Some pointed to the study done by Hennepin County and released in September, which showed that liquor sales were indeed up the first eight months of the year, but at a much slower rate in the 2004-05 interval than 2003-04. It also showed that liquor sales had increased exponentially in nearby metro counties like Scott and Carver.

Finally, the Hennepin County study showed that the establishments with the greatest perrcentage gains in liquor sales from 2003-04 to 2004-05 were places with more than $500,000 in monthly taxable sales. The places that showed the highest percentage of lost liquor sales were establishments that had sales of less than $200,000.

This would seem to bear out what independent bar owners have been saying all along: The larger, corporate-owned places are surviving the ban just fine, the neighborhood bars aren't.

(They also dispute the PiPress claim that 11 bars have closed since the ban; 23 is a number bandied about, but some claim as many 35.)

"We've been hit with a minimum wage increase, a .08 drunken driving law and a smoking ban," O'Gara says. "It's a bad time to be in the bar business."

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