Columbia Heights' VFW Post 230 was the unlikely gathering place for Minnesota's newest theater afficionados this past week. Almost 50 people from fraternal organizations that serve alcohol in their clubs listened as Mark Benjamin took center stage.
The topic was "Theater Nights.'' Benjamin, a criminal defense attorney from Cambridge, Minn., explained how to hold one. Just don't expect to see Shakespeare coming soon to a bar near you.
The events have nothing to do with an appreciation for the stage. Instead, they're a clever but wrongheaded protest against the state's five-month-old statewide indoor smoking ban. And, if they don't stop soon, there are potentially serious consequences for the protesting bars, their patrons and the ban itself.
Benjamin claims that the ban's exemption for theaters like the Guthrie -- smoking may be part of plays' most important scenes -- is too vague to rule out bars. Although he sources legal doctrine to Wikipedia and admits uncertainty about his interpretation of the law's language, he's convinced many bar owners to play along. He said about 100 have held such events to boost business. Playbills are posted and patrons who say they're actors light up.
The protest scores points for creativity, but it's also troubling. It poses a financial risk for the bars involved. It potentially puts law-abiding bars at a competitive disadvantage. More importantly, it trivializes a landmark Minnesota public health initiative and misses the point.
Bar owners have legitimate concerns about the ban's financial impact. But this is not an economic issue: It's medical. Smoking bans save lives. Researchers have found rapid, significant declines in heart attacks or heart disease after bans are put in place. In Minnesota, health plans already report more people trying to kick the habit.
The Minnesota Department of Health has ruled that bars don't qualify for the theater exemption. Violators could face fines of $10,000. Or, if cities crack down, as Maplewood threatened last week, liquor licenses could be at stake.
Benjamin said he wants a court battle. Another goal: provoking legislators to tighten the theater exemption. That could open the door for new opportunities to both debate and weaken the hardfought ban. A bill proposing two new exemptions to it was already introduced earlier this month.
When Minnesota's ban went into effect in October, 22 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico had passed smoking bans for restaurants and bars. Many European countries have enacted similar measures. With such momentum, it's unfortunate that some want Minnesota to take a step backward in such a critical public health matter.