Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Illusion of democracy -- St. Paul City Council smoking ban public hearing

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:28 PM |  

Fifteen minutes. I attended the St. Paul City Council Pubic Hearing on the smoking ban ordinance tonight. Each side had 15 minutes for testimony. As one aid noted, “If we let everybody speak as long as they wanted, we’d be here until midnight.”

Probably longer. And the council probably wouldn’t have heard any information that hasn‘t been hashed over before -- although there is the off chance, which is what a public hearing is all about. After all, the council will be voting on an ordinance that wipes out a market niche, puts the livelihood and jobs of a lot of people on the line, and does so on some pretty flimsy science and even worse civics.

I got to city hall a little early, but Bob Moffitt of the American Lung Association of Minnesota was already around with a rolled up copy of yesterday’s Pioneer Press in his hand chasing any reporter with a microphone, looking for all the world like a dark-haired Big Bird trying to show Maria the letter Q.

It was not a good day to be with the Pioneer Press, by the way. The goal of the Pioneer Press, as it is with any newspaper, is to be talked about, and in that the Pioneer Press succeeded with its article saying fears about lost hospitality business from the smoking ban were “unfounded.” I’m afraid, however, when the dust clears and people understand what the Pioneer Press data shows and what it doesn’t show, the study is going to go the way of the infamous “landmark” Helena heart attack data that ban supporters said conclusively proved smoking bans prevented heart attacks -- until the scientific community pretty well-dunked it.

The smoking ban supporters have latched onto the Pioneer Press article like they’ve previously latched onto every secondhand smoke study that they’ve commissioned, drawing wild conclusions from basically the same numerical data that is found in every secondhand smoke study whether done by tobacco companies, independent researchers, or big government or big charities. The Pioneer Press data is aggregate data, incorporates factors not related to the smoking ban, and as all aggregate data studies do, hides the impact of what is studied on specific subgroups.

Another digression before getting back to the hearing. Over a year ago, the Pioneer Press editorial board dismissed out of hand the economic and individual rights issues around the smoking ban with a typographical foot stomping -- "It's a public health issue. It's a public health issue. It's a public health issue." Today, they jumped on the bandwagon of economics -- as in no economic harm. Perhaps we may yet see an pro-ban editorial with the courage to engage on the most important issue surrounding the ban -- the question of when a health issue rises to the level NECESSITATING government intervention.

The anti-ban crowd got its 15 minutes of fame first and led off with a three-minute slide show of photographs of St. Paul bars as music played in the background. If I were a pop music buff I might have recognized the song, but suffice it to say the last line was “pray for me,” so you get the idea what the objective was. I admit, I thought it was somewhat hokey, but as slide after slide slipped by, the inescapable fact was that St. Paul has a lot of neighborhood bars. St. Paul is a lot more neighborhood-oriented city than Minneapolis. The take-away from the slide show was a smoking ban in St. Paul might have even greater negative impact than the ban had in Minneapolis.

I got ahead of myself a little. Before the show, Dave Thune -- only slightly less popular with the assembled bar owners than the Pioneer Press -- read into the record some minor changes in the bill and noted a March 31 implementation date. Councilman Hengen, a quick-fingered eminent domain guy (yes, that was a gratuitous link but went to establish a pattern of behavior, your honor), asked why the March 31 deadline. Thune’s response was that a March 31 implementation would provide bars with time to plan for the transition, AND the weather would be milder.

Now one can accuse Dave Thune of many things, but “finesse” is not one of them. His “milder weather” comment was pretty much an admission that the ban was going to have economic impact so better to implement it during the summer when smokers could go outside and the economic impact of the ban would be less, which coincidently corresponds to the time period studied by the Pioneer Press.

Thune and Helgen then got into a discussion of how the council might help bar owners make the transition, perhaps seek their input. This conversation had all the sincerity of Meg Ryan’s restaurant orgasm in “When Harry met Sally,” and drew about as many laughs from the bar owners as that scene did,” a metaphor by the way that ties in nicely with the world's three biggest lies -- “the check’s in the mail,” “I promise I’ll pull it out,” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Back to to the hearing. The point was made that charitable gambling is down considerably in Minneapolis since the ban, somewhat less in St. Paul. That fact appeared in the Pioneer Press article, but was not given much play or any analysis. It’s a good indicator of the types of establishment -- neighborhood bars -- that are indeed being hurt by the smoking ban, not to mention the charity provided by the clubs that sponsor charitable gambling are general individual acts of compassion that slip through the cracks of big government programs. I doubt you’ll see the ALA step up an buy a TV set for a veterans hospital despite Mr. Moffitt’s John Kerry-like hubris in his military service.

The disappointing -- very disappointing -- aspect of the anti-ban testimony was the resignation of some of the most influential bar owners to the fact that a full ban is inevitable. The consensus, which is also supported by my favorite Irish pub, Keegan’s in Northeast Minneapolis, is that a statewide ban is necessary to level the playing field. That’s a misguided notion on two fronts.

First, smokers aren’t coming back in any great numbers, and if they do, their behavior patterns aren’t going to change. I’ll get anecdotal for a moment, but I figure I’m spending about $6-10 less every Thursday night at Keegan’s, where Thursday night trivia is a blogger weekly event. I’m getting there later because the “gang,” many of whom smoke are arriving later, and I’m leaving earlier. I’ve generally eaten before I get there. I have one less beer, and I usually leave, with the rest of the crowd, shortly after the trivia.

The other night I hung around until about eleven -- Bogus Gold and I were embroiled in conversation plus there was a pretty good blues band. The bar cleared out long before then, and there were maybe a dozen or so people still there. During the summer (outdoor smoking patio), leaving after 11, I had to wind my way through a pretty good crowd to the door.

Second reason a state ban is not the answer is, the state is never satisfied. Turn to today’s Pioneer Press and read the “no fat” article. It’s downright scary. And I know it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, but a statewide ban doesn’t level the playing field for bars adjacent to Indian reservations, especially up north. A statewide ban kills those guys.

Were I a punster, I’d say the anti-ban side ended with a “Fleury” -- Pat Fleury of the Shamrock Bar gave a fiery speech challenging Mayor-elect Coleman and the city council as the Ghost of Christmas Future. He declared that the Pioneer Press article was “untrue,” and I’ll be talking with him to see his “proof.” Unlike the ban-supporters, he wasn’t at all hesitant to show where his numbers come from -- even to a guy from the Pioneer Press.

When Fluery finished, he received spontaneous and sustained applause from the bar owners. It took several gavel bangs to restore order.

I don’t know if the ban supporters orchestrated their presentation, but the first several speakers were all from minority communities. All spoke movingly about what they were doing in their communities to curb smoking. Although “ community activists,” these people spoke with a humility that would have been effective had they spoken to any issue relevant to a smoking ban in bars and restaurants. A very well-spoken African-American teenager mentioned that kids first jobs are generally in restaurants. A Hispanic woman, who did have that in-your-face-activist attitude (the smoking ban is a “social justice“ issue), noted that a lot of kitchen help are Latinos, which justified her speaking, but neither the teenager or the woman addressed the choice issue involved.

At times, the pro-ban people tried to generate some enthusiastic clapping, but just couldn’t get it going. The “Hallmark moment” came when an African American man related the story of his father, a club musician for 35 years, never smoked, and died of throat cancer. You can’t really knock a story like that, but again, is it really the role of government to protect people from the choices they make? In today’s smokeless jazz clubs, one wonders if the man’s father would even get work.

The ban-supporters were able to squeeze in one nurse to throw in 3,000 lung cancer deaths from secondhand smoke and 38,000 deaths from heart disease caused by secondhand smoke. I’ve explained the 3,000 number and why it’s irrelevant to the smoking ban question; I’ve asked “Big Bob” to explain the 38,000 number -- where it comes from and how it is arrived at -- but he’s never seen fit to adress questions like that (not in his job description as a communications director). He’s more interested in dropping unchallenged quotes to the media.

That about summarizes the night. For an exercise in democracy, it was a pretty sedentary evening.

Category: Smoking Ban, Local Politics