Wednesday, October 11, 2006

COLUMN -- And now, a subsidy to attract smokers the city drove away

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:14 AM |  

Wednesday, Oct 11, 2006

When irony becomes commonplace it loses some of its sarcastic potential. Instead of appreciating the irony in St. Paul's subsidizing of outdoor patios to entice smokers back to bars and restaurants from which the city banned them in the first place, we want to assume there's some common sense at work:

Outdoor smoking really isn't that big a deal. It's not as bad as smoking indoors. And smoking patios might help out some of the small neighborhood bars; but if not, at least the policy will quiet smoking-ban critics down a bit.

Having attended the hearings on the smoking ban in Minneapolis and St. Paul, having watched the total disregard shown tavern owner after tavern owner testifying about the impact of the smoking ban on their businesses and their lives, I can't get to the point where I agree it is "common sense" for government to partially fix problems that are of its own creation. Having listened to the exaggerated and scientifically misleading testimony of smoking ban supporters, I cannot let them get away with collecting kudos for, in their worldview, compromising with death.

Let's set the record straight:

• The city of St. Paul is using Sales Tax Revitalization (STAR) proceeds to revitalize some bars devitalized by the passage of the comprehensive smoking ban, but according to Barbara Schillo, Ph.D. and director of research programs for ClearWay Minnesota (formerly MPAAT), "studies conducted nationwide have shown that, over time, local smoke-free ordinances do not damage the business environment."

• St. Paul is using tax dollars to subsidize bar and restaurant patios to lure back smokers driven away by the smoking ban even though St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune believes depriving people of the opportunity to smoke in bars and restaurants provides motivation, especially for him, to quit smoking.

• Food and drink will be served to smokers on those patios, exposing waiters to the "4,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke," even though Pat McKone of the American Lung Association told the Duluth News-Tribune "we have an obligation to protect the health of workers."

• And then there is Jeanne Weigum of the Association for Nonsmokers, who commented to the Pioneer Press about subsidized patios, "If their motivation is not quite as pure as the driven snow, oh well. They're really bringing up the neighborhoods."

In Weigum's press release plugging a ClearWay survey of air-quality improvement after the smoking ban was implemented in St. Paul bars and restaurants (which even the pro-ban Pioneer Press criticized as "deceptive"), she claimed secondhand smoke causes 38,000 deaths in nonsmokers each year. "Just 30 seconds of exposure," she declared, "can make coronary artery function of nonsmokers indistinguishable from smokers."

In Weigum's world, secondhand smoke is a real killer. So how can she suddenly dismiss the health hazard to nonsmokers dining on a patio, to wait staff working a patio and to pedestrians walking past a patio, just because the patio makes the neighborhood look nice?

Bob Moffitt, American Lung Association of Minnesota communications director, has repeatedly said, "There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke." Presumably that would include exposure underneath an outdoor tent. The ALA must oppose smoking on outdoor patios then, right? No, they have no position, Moffitt posted to the MNSpeak bulletin board, but personally, he likes "the increased number of patios around town."

How can Moffitt condone a practice that exposes tavern patrons and employees to unsafe-at-any-level secondhand smoke? I don't think he legitimately can.

Here's another bit of common sense to consider — city government can't maintain its credibility without some consistent set of criteria upon which it bases policy decisions. Honest debate can't happen within a system that uses one set of justifications to pass a law and a contradictory set of justifications to correct the problems the first law created.

How credible is a government that bans smoking in private bars and restaurants and then helps those same bars and restaurants entice smokers back by using public dollars? How credible is a government that says a smoking ban will help people quit smoking, but then provides a venue where they can smoke? Can one trust a government that tells bar employees, "Secondhand smoke will kill you," and then subsidizes an area where employees must wait on smokers?

Sometimes an ounce of irony is worth a pound of common sense.