Full story regarding Pioneer Press air quality test measuring for nicotine in 20 bars & restaurantsSt. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)
December 19, 2004 Section: MAIN Edition: St. Paul Page
NO BREATHING ROOM
A SPOT-CHECK OF RESTAURANTS AND BARS IN THE EAST METRO SHOWS THAT A NONSMOKER OFTEN NEEDS MORE THAN A DESIGNATED SECTION TO AVOID INHALING CARCINOGENS.
As they enter restaurants and many bars, Minnesota diners and drinkers make a decision: smoking or nonsmoking?
Those who choose smoking sections expect to breathe secondhand smoke. But those who choose nonsmoking might not know for certain what's in their air. Can they assume the nonsmoking section is virtually smoke-free?
Cities and counties across Minnesota have been restricting smoking more and more in eating and drinking establishments. Prompted by the possibility of the next Minnesota Legislature considering a total smoking ban in restaurants and bars, the Pioneer Press Watchdog tested the air in the nonsmoking sections of 20 east-metro restaurants to see how much secondhand smoke diners could expect.
"I always find it interesting that these restaurants will have these nonsmoking areas, but nothing to separate it from the smoking section," said nonsmoker Jeff Doheny while having dinner at Stillwater's St. Croix Crab House, which showed the highest nicotine levels of the restaurants tested by the Pioneer Press. All nonsmoking usually means, he said, is "there's nobody smoking in your section with you."
During the past few weeks, several reporters tested "nonsmoking" air with equipment measuring the amount of nicotine, which in turn indicates the amount of secondhand smoke. We found that in some restaurants, the nonsmoking section is virtually devoid of smoke, at least while we were there. In others, the air was bad for asthmatics and people who already have heart disease. In a few, we found air so smoky that James Repace, an international expert, called it very unhealthy for anyone.
"I'm not surprised at all by your findings," said Bob Moffitt of the American Lung Association of Minnesota. "We've been saying for years that trying to have a nonsmoking section in the same room as the smoking section just doesn't work. It really does not keep the smoke from drifting into the so-called nonsmoking section."
With its 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act, Minnesota was the first state in the country to insist on nonsmoking areas in restaurants and bars. Thirty percent of the total seating capacity must be nonsmoking, and smoking and nonsmoking sections must be separated either by a 4-foot-wide space, a wall at least 56 inches high or a specific ventilation rate. Bars with a limited food license that seat 50 or fewer are exempt.
While its law was a breath of fresh air at the time, some now see Minnesota as lagging behind the 11 states that don't allow any smoking at all in restaurants and bars. Those bans are due to some frightening figures: In the United States, secondhand smoke causes an estimated 65,000 premature deaths in nonsmokers each year, and those exposed on a regular basis have 25 percent to 35 percent higher rates of death by heart disease.
Recently Geralda Stanton got together with friends to celebrate her 77th birthday in the nonsmoking section of Fabulous Fern's, which she calls "my neighborhood place." At this restaurant, diners who are seated in the nonsmoking area but close to the bar can sometimes smell the smoke.
"The more people don't smoke, the more we notice it when they do," Stanton said, although that doesn't keep her from being a patron. She doesn't like smoking, but her primary concern is for staff who spend their workdays in a smoky environment. That's why she endorses the idea of no smoking at all in bars and restaurants.
That's just what's set to happen next spring in Hennepin County, where commissioners voted in October to ban smoking in public places that serve food, making no exceptions for bars that do most of their business in liquor.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis and Bloomington have banned smoking on their own. Ramsey County in September adopted an ordinance to go into effect March 31 banning smoking in establishments that earn more than half their business from food sales. The St. Paul City Council has tried twice to make the city's ordinance more restrictive, but Mayor Randy Kelly vetoed it both times. The Dakota County Commission recently passed a resolution saying that the state, not local governments, should enact any kind of smoking ban. Neither Washington County nor Anoka County has a ban of its own.
The level of nicotine in nonsmoking sections of the 20 east-metro restaurants tested ranged widely, from less-than-1 to 25 micrograms per cubic meter. A 1 is considered moderate, while a 3 would be unhealthy for some people, such as those with asthma or heart disease. A 5 would be unhealthy for most people, while a 15 would be very unhealthy. Above a 25, the air would be considered hazardous, said Repace, a biophysicist who does research at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
Measuring nicotine, which is relatively easy, is roughly a proxy for measuring carcinogens, said Stephen Hecht, a professor at the Cancer Center of the University of Minnesota.
"Generally speaking, more nicotine means more smoke, and more smoke means more carcinogens," he said.
Theoretically, a person sitting for two hours in a smoky bar can inhale enough chemicals to be equivalent to smoking four cigarettes, Moffitt said. Sitting in the nonsmoking section of a restaurant that has a smoking section can be equal to smoking one-and-a-half cigarettes.
"Like many nonsmokers, I try to find the spot in a restaurant or bar furthest from visible smoke and the smell of cigarettes," he said. "However, having read the medical and scientific reports on secondhand smoke, I know I'm just kidding myself. Some of the worst toxins in secondhand smoke, such as carbon monoxide, can't be seen or smelled, and no air ventilation or filtration system can make secondhand smoke safe."
ECONOMICS AT PLAY
Some worry that if they ban smoking, customers will go to places that still allow it. Because of this, as well as health issues, many officials and restaurateurs have called for a statewide ban.
"Have the Legislature step up and do it!" said Maureen Gruntner, general manager of The Lexington on Grand Avenue at Lexington Parkway in St. Paul, which scored less than 1. "It's such an uneven playing field right now."
More than half of Minnesotans polled said they'd support a statewide ban. Gov. Tim Pawlenty said last month he'd sign such legislation; his daughter has asthma, and his family tries to avoid secondhand smoke.
That still would leave border towns at a disadvantage, said Paul Augustyn, owner of the St. Croix Crab House in Washington County; it's just across the bridge from Wisconsin, which has no statewide restrictions. He attributes his poor score to the fact that a majority of his customers smoke when his nightclub has live music. Also, he said, because his club is in a historic building, its ventilation system is not up to date and would be difficult and prohibitively expensive to improve.
Augustyn thinks an overall ban is a bad idea, anyway.
"People go to bars to exercise vices," he said. "They're going there to drink. They're going there to smoke."
As for employees, he said, they know what they're getting into when they choose to take a job.
Fabulous Fern's, just down Selby Avenue from the St. Paul Cathedral, is a midpriced restaurant known as a hangout for the Capitol crowd. Its score was 20. Owner Charles Senkler theorized that his $13,000 Honeywell smoke filtration units were turned off the day the air quality was measured because the restaurant had gotten too warm. Senkler, who is unhappy with the impending ban, sees state-of-the-art ventilation as the saving grace of nonsmoking sections.
But unless a nonsmoking area has its own separate ventilation system and its own walls, it will be contaminated to some extent by tobacco smoke, Repace said. Ventilation alone is helpful, but a system that would do away with all pollutants would be like a tornado, he said. Plus, a good modern ventilation system can be expensive to run, as it requires constantly heating or cooling fresh air and expelling air that already has been heated or cooled.
"A lot of restaurants and bars ... reduce or shut off entirely the outside air, so they're just recirculating a large part or all of the contaminated air," Repace said.
Even keeping the nicotine score down to a 3 or 4 -- still an unhealthy level for asthmatics -- can be difficult and expensive. The St. Paul Grill on Rice Park received a 4, and St. Paul Hotel general manager Chuck Paton said, "We have invested a lot of money ... into an air filtering system that was specific to smoke removal."
Of the 20 restaurants, seven registered scores of less than 1. Many of those were built recently, with new ventilation systems and floor plans drawn with smoking versus nonsmoking in mind.
But The Lexington is a venerable establishment where, since 1935, people have come from all over the Twin Cities to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and promotions. Even though it's an older building with an older exhaust system, its score was less than 1. That's because the bar is in a separate space from the dining rooms and has its own exhaust system, Gruntner said.
Although the air in The Lexington's nonsmoking restaurant scored very well, the property will be hurt by the new Ramsey County law because the bar is a neighborhood gathering place.
"They like to sit down, have a cocktail, have a cigarette," she said. "We've had people say, 'We're not coming back, Maureen, if we can't smoke.' "
Reporters Toni Coleman, Alex Friedrich, Nancy Ngo and Allen Powell contributed to this report.