Politics

Mixed Smoke Signals

The patchwork of local laws on lighting up can be confusing.
by | December 2005

At Billy's, a neighborhood pub on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, patrons can follow up a game of darts or a pitcher of beer with a cigarette. But across the street at the Bonfire, visitors must enjoy their suds and spirits smoke-free. That's because Bonfire gets more than half its revenue from food and, therefore, is considered a restaurant. When a county smoking ban took effect in March, Bonfire was forced to prohibit smoking. But Billy's, which takes in more money from alcohol than from food, got an exemption from the ban.

Across the country, as more localities are enacting smoking restrictions, smokers are finding fewer places where it's permissible to puff. Over 2,000 communities now have local laws that restrict smoking, and over 40 percent of the nation's population is under some form of either a state or local limit. But what can be truly confusing are the various quirks among local ordinances--with different restrictions on where and when it's okay to light up.

The Twin Cities area is a prime example. On March 31, separate smoking bans took effect in three cities--Minneapolis, Bloomington and Golden Valley--and in two counties--Hennepin (which includes Minneapolis) and Ramsey (which includes St. Paul). The bans differ in the businesses they cover, meaning you can smoke at a bar in St. Paul, but not at one in Minneapolis. And to qualify as a "bar" in St. Paul, a business must get most of its money from alcohol. Bloomington and Golden Valley have gone further, prohibiting smoking within 25 feet of restaurants and bars.

The situation is even more confounding in Georgia, where smokers have had to contend with 26 disparate local laws concerning smoking, each with its own set of restrictions. One city exempted pool halls and bowling alleys from its ban. Two other local measures permitted smoking only in "adult entertainment establishments." In another city, smokers could puff with impunity, but only in places that get less than 60 percent of their revenue from food. And smokers in some other localities in Georgia would be advised to bring a tape measure along with their pack of cigarettes. One town prohibits smoking within five feet of the entrance to a public building. In various other Georgia cities, it's 10, 15 or 20 feet.

Adding to the confusion in Georgia was a statewide smoking ban that took effect in July. Most of the local laws were stricter than the statewide measure, so they stayed in place. But the state ban has its own confusing foibles. Restaurants may either prohibit indoor smoking outright or confine smokers to their own specially ventilated rooms. Or they can allow smoking but ban patrons under age 18. (A few establishments have taken that to mean they can ban smoking during the day but allow it for an adults-only crowd at night.)

And with more communities across the country looking at bans on outdoor public smoking, the situation is only going to get more confusing. It's already illegal to smoke on many California beaches, and San Francisco has banned smoking in city parks. In November, Washington State approved the nation's first statewide ban on outdoor smoking, which prohibits lighting up within 25 feet of the entrance to any public building.

Mike Vaquer, a lobbyist for the Georgia Restaurant Association, opposes government-enforced smoking bans in general, "but we were seeing all these jurisdictions enacting different bans, putting some establishments at a competitive disadvantage. A statewide ban at least levels the playing field," he says.

Many officials agree that statewide bans are less confusing than myriad local restrictions. "Part of the reason [the statewide measure in Georgia] was passed was to reduce confusion," says Mike Mullet, of the state's Division of Public Health, the agency that enforces the ban. "It's a baseline that allows Georgians to know that anywhere they go, they'll be covered."

With so many regulations on both indoor and outdoor smoking, figuring out exactly where and when you're free to fire up has become an art form. For now, a smoker's checklist for an evening out may include cigarettes, a lighter and a very detailed map.

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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