The Politics of Smoking

Mike Mosedale

Poor Dave Thune. The St. Paul City Council member can't kick his tobacco habit. Like millions of others, he's a nicotine junkie. Unlike most addicts, though, as an elected official Thune has the ability to impose his will on others. And apparently he feels the need to assuage his guilt over not being able to give up his vice by dictating how the rest of us live.

Thune is the Ward Two City Council member who last month proposed a smoking ban in St. Paul bars and restaurants. Inspired by his lead, elected officials in Minneapolis and Bloomington have also seriously discussed passing smoking bans, and there's considerable talk of pushing for a statewide prohibition.

The nannies embracing such social engineering are neglecting one simple point: Any establishment that wants to prohibit people from smoking is perfectly free to do so.

If there is, in fact, a clamoring for smoke-free environments in which to eat and drink, then such places will flourish. The owner of Bryant-Lake Bowl, Kim Bartmann, testified in favor of a smoking prohibition at last week's hearing before a Minneapolis City Council committee. Yet anyone could walk into Bartmann's establishment right now and light up a cigarette without so much as attracting a furrowed brow. If Bartmann believes that every other business owner should be forced to outlaw smoking, why doesn't she do so herself?

I don't have any illusions that my libertarian argument is going to carry the day. California has had a statewide ban in place for six years now, and New York City recently put the kibosh on smokers. Even Ireland--where a pint and smoke are a sacrament akin to a wafer and wine--recently booted nicotine-addicted pub flies out onto the sidewalks. None of those places has collapsed into social anarchy. As much as I wish our elected officials would go back to worrying about potholes, it's now obvious that some form of tobacco prohibition will be implemented in the near future.

But for all the passionate arguments on either side of the debate, little has been said about the practical fallout of implementing an across-the-board ban. Before we mandate changes, let's consider the fates of a couple of beloved local institutions.

The Triple Rock Social Club has been serving up booze and chow on the West Bank since 1998. Last year the club opened an adjoining performance space that established itself as one of the finest places in town to take in live music (and notably has an impressive ventilation system). It also raised the hackles of neighbors who complained about noise. The owners spent thousands of dollars trying to fix the problem, eventually placating area residents by covering the roof with 10,000 pounds of rocks.

Even so, the Triple Rock coexists precariously with West Bank homesteaders. Now consider if the Triple Rock is forced to outlaw smoking. To put it mildly, the club's patrons have a high rate of tobacco consumption. Would these folks simply quit? Of course not. "The thing that people aren't thinking about is, you're dealing with addicts," says co-owner Erik Funk.

Nicotine enthusiasts will congregate noisily on the sidewalk outside, and, undoubtedly, litter the street with stubbed-out butts. Funk figures he'd have to hire at least one extra security guard just to patrol the outside. "It's a huge part of why we're against it," Funk says of the extra sidewalk activity that would ensue.

The Lexington Restaurant, in St. Paul, attracts a slightly different clientele. The chophouse has been renowned as a gathering spot for Minnesota's political pooh-bahs since the Great Depression. Not coincidentally, it's also a place where serious martini drinking and cigar smoking happens. Talk-radio curmudgeon Ron Rosenbaum can often be seen there chomping on an oversized stogie, and it's a favorite haunt of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

More to the point, the Lex also has two dining rooms that are entirely smoke-free. You can easily eat an entire meal there without even realizing that some gin-sodden lobbyist is in the next room chewing on a Macanudo Maduro.

Both the Lex and the Triple Rock would be irreparably harmed by a prohibition on smoking. Aside from an initial dip in customers, the character of most bars and restaurants in town would be drastically altered. Surely there's a way to curb smoking without seriously hampering such businesses.

In recent days, compromise proposals have been floated by a few elected officials. The St. Paul City Council voted down a measure that would have limited the ban to establishments that make at least 20 percent of their revenue from food. Even less promising is a scheme floated by St. Paul council member Kathy Lantry that would allow smoking only in sealed rooms where no food or drink could be served. That sounds like a blanket prohibition--and would spell doom for the one-room corner bars that are a hallmark of the city. The Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils apparently have posponed votes that were scheduled for this week, but whatever happens, one twin city will surely follow the lead of the other.

The only way out of this mess is probably some combination of the two compromise proposals. If your primary business isn't serving food, or if you have a separate room reserved for nonsmokers, let customers continue to puff away. Otherwise, the vitality of Twin Cities' bars and restaurants may be--by a handful of zealots and at least one guilt-addled smoker--snuffed out.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >