St. Louis County voters favor smoking ban

A poll indicating that most St. Louis County voters would support a smoking ban probably will help bring the issue before the County Board again -- and perhaps put pressure on politicians facing the issue.

A poll indicating that most St. Louis County voters would support a smoking ban probably will help bring the issue before the County Board again -- and perhaps put pressure on politicians facing the issue.

Speaking at a Thursday news conference where the St. Louis County Smoke-Free Coalition released the poll's results, County Commissioner Steve O'Neil said he'll raise the issue again before the end of the year.

"This data seems so overwhelmingly clear," O'Neil said. "I am reminded of that classic line: If the citizens lead, elected officials will follow. ... Citizens throughout the county really would like this to happen."

According to the poll,64 percent of St. Louis County registered voters likely to vote Tuesday favor a county ordinance prohibiting smoking in most indoor public places -- including all workplaces, public buildings, offices, restaurants and bars. Thirty-three percent said they would oppose it, while 4 percent were undecided.

"To me, it's surprising that such a large majority of people say they are ready for the county to act and act now," County Commissioner Bill Kron said at the news conference. "I haven't seen that information in print before."


The poll results were drawn from an Oct. 20-22 telephone survey of 400 registered St. Louis County voters likely to participate in Tuesday's election. The margin of error for the sample is plus or minus 4.9 percent at the 95 percent level of confidence. The poll was conducted by Grove Insight of Portland, Ore.

The poll's release five days before the election, as well as the wording of some of its questions, seems to send a message to politicians that supporting smoking bans is good politics.

One question asked who voters would support -- a candidate supporting a smoking ban in most public places or one opposing such a ban. Fifty-eight percent of respondents supported the pro-ban candidate while 21 supported the anti-ban. Twenty-two percent were not sure.

"It's a margin of plus 37 percent. Any candidate would love to have those numbers," American Lung Association of Minnesota Senior Director Pat McKone said.

Participants also were asked: "How important to you personally is the issue of limiting exposure to the secondhand smoke in voting for a candidate?" Sixty-six percent said the issue is somewhat or very important.

"I don't think there is any doubt that, in the district I am running in, the majority of the public think a smoking ban is an appropriate thing,'' said Frank Jewell, who is challenging Commissioner Dennis Fink in the 1st District. "They want to be able to go and breathe clean air. For some voters, this is the deciding issue.''

In March, after weeks of debate on the issue, Fink and every board member but O'Neil voted to ask that the 2006 Minnesota Legislature pass a statewide law banning or severely restricting smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places. State lawmakers, however, didn't act on the issue.

"I have long believed that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with on a state level first," Fink said. "I've said all along that if the Legislature didn't vote on any issue in 2007, right after the session was over I would entertain language for a smoking ordinance within St. Louis County.''


Fink said he's been working with the Arrowhead Counties Association, exploring the idea of acting regionally if the state doesn't act.

While some believe that St. Louis County shouldn't act alone on a smoking ban, 62 percent of poll respondents agreed with a statement saying it's important for St. Louis County "to act now and pass a comprehensive smoke-free air policy."

Jewell said it's clear voters support a county smoking ban, and see no need to wait for action by the Legislature.

"Duluth led the way on that, and we found there weren't these horrible consequences that had been suggested,'' he said.

According to a report released earlier this year by the U.S. Surgeon General, more than 35,000 nonsmokers die each year from heart disease caused by secondhand smoke. Regular exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer by up to 30 percent, according to the report.

Eighty-two percent of the October poll's respondents agreed that restaurants and bars would be healthier for customers and employees if they were smoke-free; 15 percent disagreed.

"The public is actually getting it, understanding it now, particularly with the hard evidence coming from the Surgeon General's office that secondhand smoke is not safe for anybody at anytime," said William F. Simpson, director of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Exercise Physiology Laboratory and an American Lung Association volunteer.

STEVE KUCHERA can be reached at 279-5503, toll-free at (800) 456-8282 ext 503, or by e-mail at .

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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