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Toad Lake Store drops 'theater night' for smokers

"We had a camera. We had a microphone. It was humorous. People enjoyed being able to smoke," said manager Sue Rader, describing the atmosphere of the Becker County bar and grill before state officials declared what was and wasn't acceptable under a state law regarding a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars.

The Minnesota Department of Health sent letters to businesses earlier this month warning them that an exemption to the Freedom to Breathe Act that allows actors to smoke in theater productions does not apply to bars that make patrons part of a sham show.

Rader said she put an end to theater night after hearing about the crackdown.

As a result, the business is not likely to see repercussions, according to Ronda Stock, community health supervisor for Becker County.

"I think that put them off the hook," said Stock, who added that she's not aware of any other businesses in Becker County holding theater nights.

Public health officials in Otter Tail, Clay, Norman and Mahnomen counties said they had not heard of any problems either.

A business in Clay County suspected of violating the smoking ban would receive a warning letter before enforcement action is taken, said Keely Hyland, a health educator for the county.

For restaurants and bars with licenses administered by the state, violators of the smoking ban face potential fines of up to $10,000.

Businesses that have their licenses administered locally could have their license suspended, or face petty misdemeanor charges if they violate the smoking ban, said Dale Dorschner, indoor air unit supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Dorschner estimated that across the state a dozen businesses or fewer are continuing to hold theater nights after being warned.

He said he's not aware of any such events being held in northwest Minnesota.

Theater night activities vary, and some facilities are more sophisticated than others, said Dorschner.

"I've heard of basically just taking Scotch tape and writing 'actor' and pasting it on your chest and going around smoking," said Dorschner, who added that patrons who violate the no-smoking rule may also face consequences.

That possibility put a damper on theater nights at the Toad Lake Store, Rader said.

"To tell you the truth, we weren't that busy. A lot of people were scared to come out," said Rader, adding that customers regularly air complaints about the Freedom to Breathe Act, which took effect in October.

"Everybody's upset about it, even the nonsmokers are upset, because it's one more right that we don't have," said Rader.