The state's ban on smoking in bars and restaurants still has that new-law smell, but already some lawmakers want to water it down. A late-night amendment slipped into a state budget bill would allow smoking shelters to accommodate patrons during the winter.
Now legislators need to reconcile the House version of the bill, which has the shelter exception, with the Senate version, which does not.
Recent efforts by some bar owners to abuse an existing exception in the smoking ban make us wary about the shelter proposal. As written, the amendment does not limit a shelter's size or scope, leaving open the possibility of extravagant structures that go beyond merely providing protection from the cold. The exception also says that "employees of an establishment with a smoking shelter may not serve food or beverages to persons in the smoking shelter," but does that mean they could be served by a neighboring establishment that happens to have the same ownership?
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But some Minnesota bars have demonstrated their willingness to violate the intent of the law. Schemes such as "theater nights," in which patrons became "actors" and bars were turned into "stages," were meant to make a mockery of the law. A shelter exception would likely invite similar impertinence.
Legislators slipped the smoking-shack exception into a wholly unrelated state budget bill in a dead-of-night vote in the House, which prevented it from being decided on its merits.
From a public-health point of view, an exception for shelters is a clear backsliding in efforts to reduce smoking. The indoor ban was part of a comprehensive effort, along with increases in tobacco taxes and antismoking education, to discourage new smokers and encourage those who might want to quit smoking.
The ban is also a workplace safety issue, protecting the health of workers and nonsmoking patrons by assuring that they have clean air to breathe. In that context, a small smoking shelter that employees are not required to enter and where secondhand smoke is comprehensively isolated could be a reasonable accommodation during our breathtaking winters. But it would be essential to ensure that workers would not be exposed to secondhand smoke and that they would not be pressured to enter smoking shelters as a condition of employment. Other patrons would also need to be completely protected from secondhand smoke.
With those major caveats, the shelter proposal was worthy of a full hearing at the Legislature. But the potential public-health risks are too significant to allow the amendment to go forward. As written, the proposal is a fundamentally flawed effort to get around the indoor smoking ban. The legislative conference committee should snuff it out.