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American Lung Association’s View: Once considered radical, smoke-free means healthier Minnesota

Pat McKone

Ten years after the Freedom to Breathe Act became law in Minnesota, it's hard to believe the idea of smoke-free workplaces was ever considered controversial. Today, Minnesota is full of children who have never known and who never will know what it is like to eat in a smoke-filled restaurant. When I talk to young people today about what it was like it's as if I am describing the Dark Ages.

But there was a time when taking smoking and secondhand smoke — that destroyer of health, lives, and pocketbooks — out of the worksite was actually a radical idea. The idea that all workers deserve the right to breathe clean air, including those working in bars and restaurants, was the basis for a coalition coming together in Duluth to help lead the way.

Moose Lake was first, in 2000, with the passage of a smoke-free policy, and Duluth was an early adopter. That's not to suggest it wasn't contentious. It was everywhere Minnesotans tackled the question of what to do about secondhand smoke.

It is no secret that our corner of the state has its share of health challenges — more than our share. However, we also have the distinction of being ahead of the pace in innovative efforts to address those challenges and to address health equity. Going smoke-free is just one example of those efforts.

The makeup of the state Legislature was different back then, but it was still a political mixed bag. That's why the American Lung Association, as part of a statewide coalition, worked so hard to assemble a bipartisan crew to carry the Freedom to Breathe bill and to get it just right.

I'm especially thankful for the leadership of the bill's co-authors: on the House side, Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth, and on the Senate side, Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato. Then, of course, Gov. Tim Pawlenty can be thanked for signing it.

Today the law is "the norm." In fact, it's one of the most popular laws in recent memory.

However, also today, tobacco continues to be the No. 1 killer of Americans. As the American Lung Association and our partners look to exciting new ideas to reduce the harm from tobacco and to take it out of the face and reach of our children, I hope we continue to lead the way. Northeastern Minnesota has never been afraid of a challenge. I hope we never will be.

Pat McKone of Duluth is the regional senior director for the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.