Local view: Happy birthday, Freedom to BreatheToday marks the fifth anniversary of the Freedom to Breathe Act, the law that made Minnesota’s bars, restaurants and workplaces smoke-free.
By: Gary Eckenberg, for the News Tribune
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Freedom to Breathe Act, the law that made Minnesota’s bars, restaurants and workplaces smoke-free.
I have a little history with the Freedom to Breathe battle, first as a health-education proponent with our St. Louis County Health Department in the mid-1980s, then as a Duluth city councilor who co-sponsored Duluth’s smoke-free restaurant ordinance more than a dozen years ago, and also as a member of the St. Louis County Smoke Free Coalition and as a board director for ClearWay Minnesota.
In 2000, it seemed opponents of smoke-free air regularly were storming City Council chambers with torches and pitchforks. Duluth received national notoriety with its council meetings lasting into the early-morning hours to hear animated public testimony. I recall an e-mail I received signed simply, “Jack Little, Businessman, Claremont, CA.” Mr. Little was less than charitable toward my belief it was the role of local elected officials to pass smoking bans to help create the critical mass needed for statewide action. He questioned both my patriotism and my parentage. My response pointing out ashtrays would go the way of spittoons and that smoking would be relegated to an activity done only by consenting adults behind closed doors was received with even less charity. After that, I refrained from responding to the hundreds of attacks that continued. But after two years of debate, Duluth became the second city in Minnesota to pass a local restaurant smoking ban, following the brave example set by Moose Lake.
On Oct. 1, 2007, the tireless work of local and state health advocates paid off as the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, ClearWay Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health, local city councils and countless antismoking groups and individual citizens celebrated with the state Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty as Pawlenty signed Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe Act into law.
Five years later, the evidence is clear: Freedom to Breathe is an overwhelming success!
The law is supported by 79 percent of Minnesotans with 86 percent believing smoke-free bars and restaurants are healthier for customers and employees.
According to the Surgeon General, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Freedom to Breathe has contributed to an 11 percent decrease in secondhand-smoke exposure.
Minnesota hospitality workers are healthier. Exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens fell by 85 percent, and nicotine exposure decreased by 83 percent after the law went into effect.
Also, the smoke-free law has not impacted Minnesota’s economy. Employment levels are a key indicator of economic impact, and since implementation there has been no decrease in jobs for hospitality workers.
But there’s still more work to be done. Minnesota has taken significant steps to reduce the harm caused by tobacco, but it continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the state with more than 5,100 of us dying from tobacco-related causes each year. Minnesotans spend nearly $3 billion annually in health-care costs due to tobacco-related illness. Smoking prevalence has declined, but 625,000 Minnesotans still smoke.
Freedom to Breathe supporters will again be active in the upcoming legislative session, working to increase the price of tobacco, a proven, strong public-health policy that will help counter the tobacco industry’s $157-million-a-year in spending to make tobacco addicts of Minnesota children; 6,800 Minnesota kids become addicted daily smokers annually.
Some of us old-timers can still recall passing smokers pushing grocery carts down supermarket aisles or visiting friends in the hospital and sharing a smoke. Such scenes seem ridiculous today, but they only stopped because of the work of Minnesotans committed to eliminating the walking billboard that was public smoking.
With winter arriving, Minnesota smokers again will be forced to bear frigid conditions outside of their workplaces due to their nicotine addictions.
Are you ready to quit? Thanks to Clearway Minnesota’s QUITPLAN it’s easier than ever (see quitplan.com). Then you, too, can celebrate your own Freedom to Breathe.
Gary Eckenberg is a former Duluth city councilor who sponsored the city’s first smoke-free restaurant ordinance, which was approved in 2001. He has been associated with the local smoke-free efforts of the American Lung Association of Minnesota, and he wrote this commentary on behalf of the agency.