To smoke or not to smoke? Barroom thespians find the play's the thing

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 14, 2008 - 11:31 PM

A clause in the smoking ban has led tavern owners to put on "theater nights" and label their customers actors so they can light up inside.

In Mark Benjamin's view, every bar's a stage and all the men and women merely smokers.

Benjamin, a former Marine, has a soft spot for VFW halls, American Legion clubs and small outstate bars he says have lost business because of the statewide smoking ban imposed in October.

In search of a loophole in the new law, the criminal defense attorney from Cambridge zeroed in on the clause that allows performers in a theatrical performance to smoke with impunity.

Wandering around the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee this summer, it hit Benjamin like the gun going off in Act III: "Theater is all around us.''

The resulting brainstorm, "The Tobacco Monologues" debuted at a Lake Mille Lacs bar last weekend when patrons ponied up a buck for a button that identified them as actors, with a license to light up.

More bars are expected to stage the performances this weekend.

Benjamin hopes his ploy will encourage lawmakers to seek a compromise that helps bar owners recoup lost business.

Not likely, say anti-smoking activists and state officials.

"This is pretty lame,'' said Jeanne Weigum, executive director of the Association for Nonsmokers. "You know what they say, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck,'' she said. "And if it looks like a bar, it's a bar."

Few participants in the lengthy battles that preceded adoption of the smoking ban in 2007 are eager to reopen those divisive debates. Been there, done that. The loophole, they pledge, will be closed. Soon.

Losses mounting

That's not poetry to the ears of bar owners like Sheila Kromer, whose Barnacles Resort and Campground in Aitkin hosted the first smoke show.

Kromer said her January liquor sales are down about 26 percent from last year, in large part because of the smoking ban. The bar clears out by 10:30, she said, as smokers seek a warm place for a cigarette.

"They might go out once,'' she said. "But when they head out a second time for a smoke, they just leave."

But last weekend, the "play" kept the bar full until it closed at 1 a.m., Kromer said. "People had fun and they had a smile on their faces."

A sheriff's deputy showed up after someone complained but left without issuing a ticket because the bar seemed to be following the letter of the law.

Since then, Kromer said, she's received about a dozen calls and e-mails from other bar owners interested in directing similar "theater nights."

Kromer said she'll be staging a repeat performance of the Tobacco Monologues and Benjamin, a Sunday school teacher, will be there in full garb: black velvet tights, white puffy shirt, black velvet hat complete with a plume and enormous black leather boots.

"All I can do is what seems reasonable to me, and this seems right," Benjamin said. "This is a good cause. If we lose, we lose. I believe you do what you can even if the odds are stacked up against you."

Kenn Rockler, executive director for the Tavern League of Minnesota, said he expects a half dozen bars will post playbills to bring smoking back this weekend.

"It's legal,'' he said. "I don't know how long it's going to last ... before someone puts a stop to it.''

Most of his members say they've seen sales go down since the smoking ban went into effect "And some of them are going to be broke if they don't do something,'' Rockler said.

Minnesota Department of Health officials don't know exactly what they plan to do about Benjamin's smoking "theater productions.'' Tom Hogan, manager of the department's Indoor Environments and Radiation section, said he's waiting for an opinion from the Attorney General's office.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, one of the ban's major proponents, said she wasn't surprised that someone would take advantage of an alleged loophole in the law. "We anticipated that people would try to find ways to not meet the spirit of the law,'' she said. "I didn't anticipate this.''

At first blush, said Doug Blanke, executive director of the Tobacco Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law, Benjamin's "theater" provides people with a good chuckle. "But this is about health, and secondhand smoke is a really serious thing,'' he said.

Critics of smoking bans in other states have made similar attempts to "squeeze" themselves into exemptions but they eventually lose in the courts, he said.

"I'm pretty sure that at the end of the day, we won't have bars calling themselves street theaters,'' he said. "How does that go: What's in a name? That which we would call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?''

And a bar filled with smoke, he concluded, is afoul of the law.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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