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Patrons Become Actors As Bars Find Way To Evade Smoking Ban

Agence France-Presse in Maplewood, Minnesota – Updated on Mar 12, 2008

Sick of sending their patrons outside to shiver in the cold, dozens of bars in Minnesota are challenging the state’s smoking ban with a new spin on the Shakespearean adage that all the world’s a stage.

They have started handing out posters and calling their customers actors to exploit a loophole in the law that exempts theatrical productions from an October 1 ban on smoking in public places.

Legislators are not amused. But in the weeks it took them to respond to the first foray into treating life as art, the idea has spread like wildfire. And smokers and bar owners across the state are digging in their heels.

“It’s rebellion. People want to speak their mind,” Sarah Brent, 38, said as she puffed on a cigarette in the Rock Nightclub in Maplewood, a suburb of the state capital, St Paul.

Twenty-three states have extended public smoking bans to bars and restaurants, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. But in Minnesota, where the winters are so cold a puff of breath will turn to frost by the time it reaches your eyelashes, a revolt began on February 9 at a resort popular with snowmobilers and ice fisherman in Lake Mills Lacs where lawyer – and non-smoker – Mark Benjamin persuaded the owners to let him stage the “Tobacco Monologues”.

“I realised when I saw the exception, which I had never heard of before, that that’s it,” said Mr Benjamin, who attended the first “performance” in medieval costume. “All we had to do was exploit it.”

Within weeks more than 100 bars in mining towns and suburbs had staged “performances”

Most pretences of stagecraft soon fell by the wayside. The ashtrays serve as props and, while a few lines of dialogue may be spoken in jest, the performances mostly consist of people sitting around drinking, talking and smoking – just as before the ban.

The performances are particularly popular in the heart of the Iron Range, a section of the state where mining is the prevailing industry and the winters are harsh even by Minnesota standards.

“Everybody up here is trying to jump on that bandwagon because [the ban has] affected business so badly,” said Deb Davey, who has helped several bars stage performances in the town of Gilbert.

After complaints, the Minnesota Department of Health announced last week that the performances did not comply with the law and threatened bar owners who kept staging them with fines of up to US$10,000.

But the performances have been a lifeline for proprietors of small bars, who say their revenues have plummeted since the ban.

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