Saturday, September 04, 2004

St. Louis Park, MN. secondhand smoke test results offer an alternative to smoking bans.

Unique smoking policy measures, posts amount of nicotine in air.

PUBLIC HEALTH: St. Louis Park bars and restaurants that allow smoking will have their air monitored and let customers decide whether it's safe.

Saturday, September 4, 2004

While St. Paul officials continue to wrestle with an ordinance banning smoking in bars and restaurants, the city of St. Louis Park has developed a novel, consumer-beware approach for dealing with secondhand smoke.

Under the program, owners of licensed food establishments can either continue to allow smoking or go smoke-free. But there's a catch: Establishments that choose to allow smoking must have the air in their nonsmoking sections tested for nicotine content and the results prominently posted on their entrance doors. They also must pay a $700 annual fee to cover the cost of the testing program. In turn, customers who plan to dine in the nonsmoking sections will know in advance how much nicotine they probably will inhale. If they think the amount is too high, they can go to another restaurant, said Brian Hoffman, director of inspections for St. Louis Park.

Hoffman said the nicotine-measuring idea was generated last year by members of a city task force, and, to his knowledge, it's the only one of its kind in the nation. Six restaurants elected to go smoke-free, and 19 others agreed to participate in the program, Hoffman said.

Dennis Flaherty, St. Paul's deputy mayor, said St. Louis Park's approach to thesecondhand smoke issue would not fly there. St. Paul has about 800 bars and restaurants. The St. Paul City Council voted 4-3 on Wednesday to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, the second time it has done so in 10 weeks. Flaherty said earlier this week that Mayor Randy Kelly is leaning toward vetoing the ban -- as he did the first time it passed -- because Ramsey County appears poised to adopt a less-restrictive measure. Most Ramsey County commissioners favor an ordinance that would ban smoking in alcohol-free restaurants but exempt establishments that earn half or more of their revenue from liquor. The proposal is modeled after Olmsted County's rules.

During the first round of testing, four St. Louis Park restaurants had nicotine levels below one microgram per cubic meter of air, Hoffman said. Readings from all but one of the others ranged from 1.15 micrograms to 7.35 micrograms, which are comparable to results from similar tests conducted around the nation. The final -- and by far highest -- reading was 32.5 and came from the city's only bar, Al's Liquor, he said.

Health experts say there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Of course this is a false statement, determining safe levels of potentially harmful substances is what the role of OSHA is all about. There is no way to completely eliminate harmful substances from existence, once you recognize that, it simply becomes a matter of recognizing a safe acceptable level.

Hoffman described the testing program as labor intensive and said it took a year to set up. In addition, the air sampling has to be done annually.

Here's how it works: The city purchased two air pumps and the complementary collections systems for about $3,000. On three separate occasions, they are placed in the restaurant's nonsmoking section and run for at least 100 minutes. Residue collected during the pumping process is then analyzed at a lab jointly owned by St. Louis Park, Edina and Bloomington.

Results from the six samples are then averaged and the numbers are printed on eight-inch square signs posted prominently on the restaurant's entrance doors.

In addition, brochures that explain the program and the hazards of secondhand smoke are handed out to consumers.

You can download a copy of the actual St. Paul Pioneer Press article here from its premium subscription archive page.

What exactly did the St. Louis Park test results show? See for yourself.

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