Sunday, March 02, 2008 By Aaron Brown
Smoky theatrics at Minnesota bars
By Aaron J. Brown
Change isn’t easy, especially when addictive drugs and thousands of billable lobbying hours are involved. That’s why last year’s “Freedom to Breathe Act” took so long to become law despite the support of three-quarters of Minnesota’s population. Today, the debate lives on, if only for what will probably be a brief run of what I assume to be some mediocre plays.
The statewide workplace smoking ban prohibits smoking just about everywhere under state jurisdiction, including bars. Adding taverns to that equation was a dicey provision, especially here on the Iron Range, where smoking while drinking on a stool remains a time-honored tradition. Iron Range state legislators universally opposed the ban, but the smoking ban passed by wide margins anyway. State workplaces are now entirely smoke free.
I wrote a column supporting the smoking ban before it passed and was glad that it did. Ultimately, I continue to believe the new law will be good for business and health. Indeed, business at combined bar/restaurants seems to be holding or even improving, as I learned by talking to staff at a few places in Hibbing and Grand Rapids.
But coming from a family of many small business owners, I also knew that the transition would be hard on smaller bars and community cafes. Studies show that the first year after a smoking ban hurts, but gives way to better years as people realize how much they miss drinking in public.
The key word here is “transition.” I know that word is cold comfort to folks trying to make a living, but I can’t help but be discouraged by another quixotic stand taken by several local bars.
See, there’s a loophole in the smoking ban regarding the use of cigarettes in theatrical productions. You’re allowed to light a cigarette indoors if it's for a play that calls for smoking. So a Minnesota attorney, Mark Benjamin, is encouraging bars to hold “Tobacco Monologues,” or hastily produced “plays” that last all night and include everyone who wishes to smoke in the bar. A joint in Hill City was the first northern town to try it and now bars across the Range are adopting the idea, a phenomenon well documented in local and state media.
Benjamin and bar owners are acting pretty glib about their great idea, but this movement will only serve to close the theater loophole, which will not only leave them in the same spot but ruin future productions of “12 Angry Men” for the rest of us.
What the backers of this “smoker theatre” movement don’t realize is that the effects of bad theater pose a bigger collective threat than the effects of second-hand smoke and economic ruin combined. I’ve seen countless high school, college and community theater productions. I’ve coached and judged high school speech, which features many dramatic performances. And let me tell you, while most performances have been average and some great, the bad ones easily shaved a few weeks off my expected lifespan.
Bad theater won’t give you cancer; but give it enough time and bad theater will kill you. They might rule it suicide or maybe some kind of stroke, but don’t be fooled. It’s the bad theater. Sure, you’ll survive bad theater a few times a year, but if you’re taking in bad theater every weekend just to smoke, you might as well sumo wrestle with an atom bomb.
Silliness aside, the hard facts here are simple. This debate isn't about the right to smoke, which people have, but the right to smoke in a public place governed by health codes. That right, if it ever officially existed, no longer exists. Workplace smoking bans are becoming standard in the industrialized world. They aren’t going away.
Give it time. I know I am not at financial risk by saying that, but smoking bans have taken time to become part of the culture in other places and will here too. Meantime, any business that is to survive long term must find ways to adjust to change. Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who never went to bars, in part because of the smoke, are potential new customers. What can business owners do to get nonsmoking customers to patronize their bar? (Hint: bad theater and additional smoke won't work).
I suppose I have to give Benjamin and the bar owners credit for creativity. And I also know that there are certain bars on the Range where I won’t be welcome for several years after the publication of this column. But this is one of those times where we need to take stock of what’s really important and adjust to a changing world.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more or contact him at his blog http://www.minnesotabrown.blogspot.com/.