by Sarah Squires
Winona County can keep puffing away. For now.
The county's Community Health Services Advisory Committee has dropped the quest for a countywide smoking ban in all public places. But it doesn't mean that smokers will necessarily be left alone for long.
Community Health Services Director Lynn Theurer said Thursday that the county is not pursuing a countywide ordinance which would ban smoking in public, although she feels confident that the state will pass a statewide ban, making Minnesota the 16th state to kick the habit.
Governor Tim Pawlenty has stated publicly that he would sign a bill banning smoking in Minnesota public areas. Bills will be introduced at the state level the second week in January, and Representative Gene Pelowski said Friday that such a bill might first go through the Government Operations Committee, which he chairs.
Theurer said that it's always been the county's preference that the state mandate the ban, rather than a county-by-county approach. "You want everybody in the state to have an equal playing field," she said.
The question of whether the county ought to pursue a local ban has been on the table before, most recently in response to two local surveys on secondhand smoke.
The first survey was conducted by the national research firm the Mellman Group. The survey questioned 352 Winona County residents using a random-dialing phone method, asking about individual feelings on secondhand smoke exposure and whether they would favor a smoking ban.
The survey suggested that over 70 percent of Winona County residents would favor a law which would prohibit smoking in public places.
The Mellman Group is a Washington D.C. based research, analysis and survey business which caters to corporations, politicians and government bodies. Its website boasts that the firm holds expert status in strategies to lead people and public opinion toward a product, politician or opinion.
"If you understand how people think, you can shape opinion and change behavior. The power to effect change is well within your reach: the key is effective message development," states the firm's website. "At The Mellman Group, we find the messages that influence the decisions of consumers and voters because we combine the most advanced research techniques with a superior command of strategy. It is a powerful combination, proven to help clients around the world gain real advantage and win tough battles in highly competitive environments."
The website continues, "Some pollsters simply report on opinions. We use the most sophisticated analytical tools available to understand the motivations of consumers and voters so we can intervene in their decision-making processes to produce the outcomes our clients want."
The website also says that the firm is nationally known to provide accurate and unbiased data. "Maybe that's why we are consistently sought out by government agencies like the U.S. Department of State and by major news organizations like Fortune magazine and CBS News," it says.
The survey was conducted through a grant from the State Health Department. The county has done similar surveys in the past, most recently in 2003.
Theurer said that the recent Mellman Group study shows that support for a smoking ban in Winona County has grown since the 2003 survey, and indicates that such a ban is what the public wants. "[In] any good plan for public policy you want the majority of the public to favor whatever sanction that's going to occur," she said. "You want the most progressive public policy that you can have, and you want the public to support it."
Rep. Pelowski said that he hasn't seen the statewide smoking ban bill yet, and so he doesn't yet have a solid grasp on the scope of the bill or the impact it might have on local units of government, businesses or the public. "There are several areas of concern," he wrote in an e-mail Thursday. "The health impact on those who smoke and get secondhand smoke, the economic impact on health care costs by those who smoke and get secondhand smoke. Also the savings on health care costs by such a proposal."
While the potential for a local ban on smoking might be on the back burner, smokers and non-smokers across the state have got an ear to the ground to see if this legislative session might leave Minnesota smokers out in the cold.