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've started handing out playbills and calling their customers actors in order to exploit a loophole in the law which exempts theatrical productions from an Oct 1, 2007 ban on smoking in public places.
AdvertisementLegislators 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 barkeeps 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, Minnesota, a suburb just outside the state capitol of St. Paul.
"It's about people standing up and taking a stand."
Some 23 states and hundreds of cities and counties across the United States have extended public smoking bans to bars and restaurants, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
While the bans have faced stiff initial opposition from smokers and business owners, the grumbling doesn't usually last too long after the smoke clears.
Not so in Minnesota, where the winters are so cold a puff of breath will turn to frost by the time it reaches your eyelashes.
The 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 convinced the owners to let him stage the "Tobacco Monologues."
"I realized when I saw the exception, which I had never heard of before, that that's it," said Benjamin, who attended the first "performance" in medieval costume.
"All we had to do was exploit it," he told AFP. "But I would say what we're doing is following the intent of the Legislature."
Within a matter of weeks more than 100 bars in mining towns and sleepy suburbs had staged performances.
Most pretenses 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 in a bar, drinking, talking and smoking - just like it was 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's) affected business so badly," said Deb Davey, who has helped several local bars stage performances in the town of Gilbert, population 2,000.
The first to hold a smoking performance was a strip club named Gladiator's. Though the ban was passed to protect employees, Davey said the dancers at Gladiator's support the performances.
"It was hard on the girls because they can't get dressed and go outside for a cigarette," Davey said.
After complaints, the Minnesota Department of Health announced last week that the performances don't comply with the law and threatened bar owners who kept staging them with fines of up to 10,000 dollars.
"These bars are attempting to circumvent the Freedom to Breathe Act," said Dr. Sanne Magnan, the state's health commissioner. "We expect all establishments to comply with the law."
But the performances have been a lifeline for proprietors of small bars that have kept generations of blue-collar workers lubricated with beer and whiskey. They say their revenues have plummeted 30 percent or more since the ban.
"I know a lot of bars that I've talked to that, based on the law, don't have any intention of stopping theater nights," Brian Bauman, owner of The Rock in Maplewood who staged performances this weekend despite the ruling.
"They're going to try to make an example out of somebody. Could it be us? Probably."
"It's a difficult situation. We're trying to survive."