For years smokers unable to light up inside the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis have found nicotine-charged relief outside on the broad red-brick sweep of Government Plaza.

Now the plaza could soon be off-limits too.

The County Board is considering banning all tobacco use anywhere on county grounds, inside and out, even if you're parked on county property in your own car.

The proposal came from Board Chair Mike Opat, who cited the litter and health effects of "an ugly and disgusting habit that visits itself on everybody else. It's time to take the next step and get on with it."

The measure received a favorable hearing at a board briefing Thursday, even though some issues remain to be ironed out. Questions were raised about how to enforce the policy, its potential impact on neighboring buildings and whether it would even make much of a difference.

Proponents argue that it would reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, cut down on unsightly cigarette butts littering entrances and improve workplace productivity.

It would put the state's largest county in the forefront of a rising tide to further restrict smoking in publicly owned places, a movement that recently has seen growth at parks and colleges.

"If we're able to pass this policy, it would help pave the way for other counties going through the same struggles and pave the way as an example," said Tera King, wellness analyst for Hennepin County's HealthWorks program.

The policy change, which could be taken up by county commissioners next month and take effect this summer, comes as new tobacco regulations are being implemented around the country and others might be loosened.

The New York Times reported this month that hospitals and medical firms in many states no longer hire job applicants who smoke. A USA Today analysis last week showed that more hotels nationally are going smoke-free, even where it's not required by law.

At the same time, some Minnesota legislators want to partly repeal the state's three-year-old smoking ban for bars and restaurants, making it legal to smoke in sealed-off rooms at bars that serve food. They say the ban is an intrusive government edict that hurts business.

Other local bans in Minnesota

Olmsted County, home of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, has perhaps the state's most comprehensive public-property ban, prohibiting smoking on all county property and city-owned property in the county.

Other counties have a range of smoking or tobacco bans on their premises, including Dakota, Scott, Polk and Wabasha. The cities of Bloomington, Eden Prairie and International Falls have similar bans.

Hennepin County Medical Center already is tobacco-free, and smoking was prohibited last year at the county's NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center in north Minneapolis. Advocates look at a comprehensive Hennepin County ban as carrying added weight.

"Any time a large county makes a move like this, it definitely brings along other people and makes it seem not far-fetched," said Jeanne Weigum, executive director of the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota. "I think Hennepin County has often taken the lead on public health issues, and this is another example."

The proposed Hennepin County policy would ban tobacco use on county-owned property and property where the county is the sole tenant. It includes grounds, structures, parking ramps and lots, equipment and vehicles.

County workers could use tobacco while on the clock only while in their own cars, traveling outside county-owned property and without a county client accompanying them.

About the only property exempt from the policy would be county roads.

Redirect, not punish, smokers

If commissioners approve the policy this spring, signs would go up and an information campaign launched to accustom workers to the new regimen.

It would take effect July 1 at downtown county buildings, Aug. 1 at county libraries, Sept. 1 at suburban county sites and Oct. 1 at county-leased properties.

Enforcement would be shared by workers and security officers. The idea is to redirect smokers when they're spotted and not to search them out, said Jill Hamilton, who runs the HealthWorks program.

"The intent is not to punish anybody, it's to create a healthy environment," Hamilton said.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson wondered whether the new policy was worth the effort if smokers need only to cross the street. Johnson, a nonsmoker, said he also thought that barring someone from smoking in their car on county property was a bit of a stretch.

Opat said he was confident the commission will approve the policy. The more difficult change, he said, came with banning smoking inside buildings.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455