A lot of people are speculating about what will happen when Minnesota goes smoke-free, I say "when," not "if," because that is the direction in which we are rightfully headed.

Based on scientific evidence and the experience of hundreds of communities, I can tell you exactly what will happen: Minnesotans will no longer be exposed to the 11 cancer-causing chemicals in secondhand smoke, nonsmokers' risk of lung cancer and heart disease will be significantly reduced, fewer people will smoke and health care costs will decline.

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This is why passing a comprehensive smoke-free law is so important to all Minnesotans. As the U.S. surgeon general put it this year, "Secondhand smoke is dangerous -- whether you are young or old, healthy or sick, there is no safe amount." The surgeon general made that statement as he released a historic report about the health impacts of secondhand smoke.

Major conclusions of this report include that secondhand smoke causes premature death and disease in children and adults who do not smoke, that children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for SIDS, acute respiratory infections, ear problems and more severe asthma, and that exposure of adults to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer.

The scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Many millions of Americans still are exposed to secondhand smoke and eliminating smoking in indoor spaces is the only way to fully protect nonsmokers from exposure that separate sections, ventilating and cleaning the air cannot eliminate.

One of the common arguments against passing smoke-free policies at the state and local level is that it should be left up to individual business owners to decide. That argument falls significantly short, considering that protecting public health and safety is one of the core functions of government. Most recently, with the recall of spinach, we expected government inspectors and food safety experts to protect us from potential illness. Protecting workers and the public from the known health hazards in secondhand smoke should be no different -- except the powerful tobacco lobby that promotes "accommodation" of a substance that is known to cause cancer and heart disease.

As we look forward to a new year, it is important that we all recognize our collective responsibility for making healthy choices as individuals, corporations and communities. Limiting exposure to secondhand smoke is common sense: Companies should provide smoke-free environments for their workers, and elected officials at the state and local levels should pass policies that protect the public from exposure.

In the more than 30 years that I have been working to reduce the harm and destruction caused by tobacco, I have heard thousands of personal stories about the devastating impacts of tobacco on individuals and families in Minnesota. We all know someone who has been affected. Knowing what we know, do we really want to start 2007 by allowing workers, patrons and children to still be exposed to the known risks of secondhand smoke?

Going smoke-free will make Minnesota a healthier place to live, work and breathe. If we limit smoking in public places, we'll experience more people quitting, lower incidents of youths smoking and a reduction in the thousands of illnesses and diseases caused by both by direct and secondhand smoke.

Minnesota once led the nation in protecting nonsmokers and smokers alike from secondhand smoke in passing the landmark legislation in 1976 -- the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act. Now Minnesota is lagging behind 22 other states with smoke-free laws. The time to act is now. What are we waiting for?

Pat McKone of Duluth is president-elect of the Minnesota Smoke Free Coalition. She is also senior director of Tobacco Control Programs and Policy for the American Lung Association of Minnesota.