Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A few thoughts on the Hennepin County Commissioner's Meeting

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:31 AM |  

Watching people march to the podium at Hennepin Country Commissioners’ Meeting last night, I observed that smoking ban proponents dress better than those that oppose the smoking ban. Therefore, I concluded, one’s commitment to the idea of property rights and individual choice must be inversely related to the cost of one’s wardrobe. My conclusion carries as much validity as the statistics being trotted out in support of the smoking ban.

Ostensibly the hearing was to take testimony on Commissioner Mark Stenglein’s amendment to Hennepin County Ordinance 24, which would permit exemptions from the Henneping smoking ban for bars that met specific criteria. In reality, it was a rehash of the same arguments both for and against the ban. The difference was, this time smoking ban proponents did not go unchallenged.

Freed from the constraints of running for mayor, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin joined Commissioner Penny Steele in repeatedly challenging smoking ban proponents that trotted out aggregate numbers to support the dangers of secondhand smoke and the notion that there is no economic harm from smoking bans. They repeatedly challenged testifiers to relate secondhand smoke exposure to bars and restaurants and relate aggregate economic harm specifically to bars. The questions left ban supporters stuttering or promising to “get back on that.”

Firm ban proponents commissioners Gail Dorfman, Randy Johnson, and Linda Koblick were far less aggressive questioners. At one point Koblick made the general comment that it while the commissioners might ask questions for clarification, she did not see it as the role of the commissioners to “debate” with testifiers. Commissioner Steele quickly jumped in noting that in the past the commissioners have not challenged claims made by speakers and that tough questioning was necessary to understand exactly what claims were being made. Neither she nor McLaughlin relented in their questioning.

A prime example was Steele’s question to a county environmental inspector. The women noted that as part of her job she was required to inspect smoky bars and did not have a choice to avoid secondhand smoke. Questioning from Steele arrived at the fact that the women spent at best, 40 hours per year, spread out over the year, inspecting “smoky” bars.

What was not raised at this point was the question of when does an individual health issue rise to the level of a public health issue requiring government intervention. Should all bar owners and all bar patrons be denied individual choice to spare one woman 40 hours exposure to secondhand smoke in the course of a year? By what criteria?

A side note of interest, Koblick was the only commissioner that voted opposed to extending testimony past the set end time of 9 PM when there were still 20 people that wanted to speak. Debate is not something ban supporters seem to favor.

The crew filming “Devil’s Weed” was also present at the hearing, taking advantage of open meeting rules to try and get smoking ban proponents on camera to make their cases for a smoking ban. Health organization officials, MPAAT representatives, and pro-ban legislators have been reluctant to take part in the documentary.

It is notable that Bob Moffitt of the American Lung Association was quick to complain to meeting security about the presence of a film crew at an open meeting. Two-sided arguments are not Moffitt’s forte. He did not testify, his comments would have been subject to questioning, but he managed to get himself quoted in the St. Paul Paper making the argument that people were “clamoring for smoke-fee establishments.” That argument was lanced by Commissioner McLaughlin when made by a more courageous ban supporter in public testimony. Like most of the suited ban supporters, Moffitt left before all the testimony was heard.

It should be noted that despite the lack of local participation of ban supporters in the “Devil’s Weed” project, producer Curt Johnson notes the crew has interviews set up with epidemiologists, cardiologists and medical professionals around the country to provide the public health point of view. Among the criteria in choosing these professionals was that none have any connection to tobacco companies.

A personal note -- leaving the meeting I could not help but be depressed by the lack of understanding by physicians, healthcare professionals and politicians of the underlying issues. It was not that these people had considered the property rights issues, the issue of individual choice, and the proper role of government in public health and could make an argument for a smoking ban that considered those issues. No, they simply ignored them or rejected them out of hand.

The commissioners as well had no context for making a public health decision, although Steele and Stenglein seemed to understand there was an issue. McLaughlin is more the politician. He repeatedly noted he wants a statewide ban, which would make his life a whole lot easier in that he wouldn’t have to make a decision. (What ever happened to federalism? A letter from former Gov. Arne Carlson was only the first of several allusions to the benefits of not just a statewide, but a nationwide smoking ban.) To have the fate of Hennepin County’s smoking ban rest on the vote of Mike Opat is hardly a victory for good government.

Not to mention St. Paul's Dave Thune.

Categories: Public Health, Smoking Ban, Local Politics