All of Minnesota's a stage (if you're a smoker)

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The Independent US

It's a long way from Broadway but Minnesota has become a hotbed of amateur theatre this winter, with new and assuredly amateurish productions popping up in bars and taverns up and down the state.

Expect more pantomime than Shakespeare. Puff the Magic – Drag On might be an audience favourite.

Attracting audiences is not actually the point. It is entirely for the benefit of the actors, really just punters, whose sole interest in treading the boards is the opportunity to hold one tiny prop in between their fingers: a cigarette.

It is a wheeze (cough and splutter) born of a loophole that bar owners found after a statewide ban on smoking in public places started in Minnesota six months ago.

The Freedom to Breathe Act had an exemption that allowed actors to smoke in theatrical productions, so long as patrons were warned in advance.

While there is a serious side to their shenanigans – many bar owners have seen revenue slide sharply since the ban came into effect – a good deal of fun has been had along the way. To make things at least half convincing, some taverns give names to their sham productions, print up playbills and even have both punters and bartenders dress up in elaborate costumes.

Among the first establishments to get in on the act – or rather acting – was the Barnacles Resort at Lake Mille Lacs, a favourite winter spot for ice fishermen and snowmobile riders. On the first night it challenged the ban, it featured a "travelling tobacco troupe". Mark Benjamin, a lawyer who first encouraged bar owners to exploit the loophole, showed up in tights, a feathered hat and leather boots.

The Cover Inn near Vadnais Heights, meanwhile, advertised a production it called As the Clover Turns. As in most other locations, all that is involved for theso-called actors is to prop up the bar and draw heavily on cigarettes just like they used to before the pesky ban was thrust upon them.

While all this might delight smokers in the state, others are not impressed. Among those lobbying for a change is the American Cancer Society.

This week, the Minnesota Health Department decided enough was enough and issued a warning to bar owners to drop the curtain on the phoney dramatics. "These bars are attempting to circumvent the Freedom to Breathe Act," the commissioner of health, Dr Sanne Magnan said on Wednesday. "The law was enacted to protect Minnesotans from serious health effects of second-hand smoke."

The city fathers of Vadnais Heights are also attempting to dim the lights at the Clover Inn. The town council passed a new regulation that will make smoking in bars illegal, whatever the circumstances. The Bard himself could show up and it would make no difference.

"The decision's been made. There's not going to be any smoking. The theatre stunt to go around the law was sly against the spirit of the law. There wasn't much discussion. The law's the law," said Joe Murphy, a council member.

So, the burst of theatrical invention across Minnesota – other favourite productions have included Before the Ban! and The Tobacco Monologues – may be about to go up in smoke.