Ten years ago, Minnesota took a major step in protecting people from secondhand tobacco smoke. The Freedom to Breathe Act was implemented Oct. 1, 2007, making all Minnesota hospitality venues smoke-free. The law built on Minnesota’s first-in-the-nation Clean Indoor Air Act, a 1975 law that prohibited smoking in most public places. Bars and restaurants, however, were given an exemption, leading to the creation of designated smoking areas.
The campaign to pass Freedom to Breathe and the impact it has had on Minnesota offer five success stories and lessons that are important a decade later:
First, it has been successful for businesses. While restaurant and bar owners were worried about the impact of the law on business, research showed that the hospitality industry’s sales growth remained constant after the law’s implementation. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment and earnings in Minnesota’s hospitality and leisure sector are up substantially from the beginning of 2007, before passage of Freedom to Breathe. One reason is the law’s broad acceptance among customers. A statewide survey in 2014 found that 87 percent of Minnesotans supported the smoking ban.
Second, it has been successful for hospitality workers. Research conducted by the University of Minnesota found that hospitality workers were exposed to 85 percent less tobacco-related carcinogens within the first month of the smoking ban.
Third, it has been successful for all Minnesota citizens. Adult smoking rates are down to about 14 percent, according to the most recent Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 20 to 40 percent of the premature deaths from the five leading causes –heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, and unintentional injuries – could be prevented, especially through changes in personal behavior. Among the changes that would have the most dramatic effect are reductions in smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the CDC.
Fourth, it has been a success for grassroots policy advocates. For those frustrated with the gridlock that often ties up state and federal government, the history of Freedom to Breathe is an encouraging case history. The law’s journey didn’t start in St. Paul, but in Moose Lake, a northern Minnesota community of about 2,700 people. A local ordinance prohibiting smoking in hospitality venues was passed and took effect Aug. 1, 2000. Over time, the effort spread to other greater Minnesota communities and the Twin Cities. Eventually, grassroots pressure grew on the state legislature to pass a statewide law – and that was accomplished in 2007.
Fifth, it was a success for those who believe good science makes good public policy. Support for the law was enhanced by the scientific research that showed the adverse health impact of secondhand smoke on hospitality workers and patrons. The research framed the question: Why should mostly white-collar office workers be protected from secondhand smoke under the 1975 Minnesota law while hospitality workers are exposed to severe health risks? Ultimately, that was a key argument that won the debate.
Reducing the cost of health and helping people lead healthier lives should be a key focus of public policy. In addition to tobacco use, promoting better nutrition and more physical activity are keys to reducing preventable deaths. Smart public policy can lead the way, as 10 years of Freedom to Breathe demonstrates.