Sheran: Five Years of Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe

On any given night across Minnesota, families sit down at their favorite neighborhood restaurants and bars and enjoy meals together. Many don’t even notice what’s no longer there: plumes of cigarette smoke, which used to hover over our heads, permeate our clothes and infiltrate our lungs. We have the Freedom to Breathe Act to thank for that – an important piece of legislation that turns five years old this week.

I came to the State Senate with 35 years in health care knowing the state had to address the serious impact of secondhand smoke. At the time, more than 580 nonsmokers were dying each year from secondhand smoke in the state, and exposure was costing Minnesotans millions each year in increased health care, health insurance and tax costs.

The intention of the Freedom to Breathe Act was clear: to combat and reverse those statistics in our state, by making our bars and restaurants smoke-free. Today, the youngest among us – who don’t remember what sitting in a smoky restaurant was like might think this step was an obvious one. I look back at smoke-filled airplanes with the same level of surprise.

And now, five years later, it’s clear that this legislation marked a critical change in our culture. Far fewer nonsmokers are exposed to the proven dangers of tobacco smoke. Hospitality workers are no longer exposed to the cancer-causing chemicals of secondhand smoke at work. There are 10-year-old kids who have never sat in a smoky restaurant, and 21-year-old servers who have never risked asthma, emphysema or worse to work in smoke-filled bars.

Minnesotans agree. 79 percent support smoke-free policies and 86 percent believe smoke-free bars and restaurants are healthier for customers and employees.

Many other institutions are following suit after seeing the success of Freedom to Breathe. Employers, college campuses and apartment building owners are putting Minnesota ahead of the national curve on smoke-free public spaces and workplaces.

When I think back on writing and introducing this bill, I remember the uphill battle that my partners and I fought, and the resources that were spent against our efforts. But in the end, all Minnesota won, and we are all healthier for it.

While Freedom to Breathe was a game-changer for the health of Minnesotans, there is still more to do. The tobacco industry is adapting and finding new ways to target our children with new products and dangerous messages. Nearly 6,800 Minnesota kids become addicted daily smokers every year. That’s 6,800 too many.

Our strategy must be to interfere with this plan, and to guarantee a healthier future for our kids. With fewer smokers and less exposure to secondhand smoke throughout the state, we can relieve a burden on our health care system, bring down the nearly $3 billion we spend in excess health care costs due to tobacco-related illnesses and offer better quality care for all of us.

I am thankful to remain part of a committed and ever-growing group dedicated to helping Minnesotans stop smoking, and to preventing our young people from becoming addicted adults.

To celebrate five years since Freedom to Breathe, I encourage all of us to share a meal with our families in your favorite restaurant or bar. While you are there, raise a toast, take a deep breath and most of all enjoy the freedom of health that this law has afforded all of us.

Senator Kathy Sheran
Kathy Sheran represents District 19, which includes portions of Blue Earth, Le Sueur, and Nicollet counties in the south central part of the state. She chairs the Health, Human Services and Housing Committee.

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