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Minnesota Marks 10th Anniversary of Freedom to Breathe Act

This week, Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, a coalition of Minnesota's leading health organizations, marks the 10-year anniversary of the Freedom to Breathe Act, a law that protects Minnesotans from secondhand smoke in public places including restaurants and bars. The positive changes the law has made in people's lives across the state are clear.

"Having clean air to breathe at work means I can continue to do the work I love. I wouldn't have chosen to continue working in a restaurant with smoky air through my pregnancies," says Jessica Berry, a bar and restaurant server in St. Paul with two children and one more on the way. "I'm astounded now to think back on the conditions my coworkers and I were exposed to 10 years ago, and relieved to know that we no longer have to endure that kind of toxic air on a regular basis."

Musician Justin Bell played in smoky bars up to 10 times a month before the Freedom to Breathe Act cleared the air. "Freedom to Breathe was a game-changer for working musicians in Minnesota," said Bell, a father of two who works for the American Heart Association. He appreciates the healthy change the new law meant for the state's music and hospitality community – and his family. "Before Freedom to Breathe, you had no choice but to subject yourself and anyone who wanted to see you perform to clouds of secondhand smoke. My smoke-free home constantly smelled like an ashtray, exposing my entire family to the accumulated poison my gear had collected gig by gig. Now my family, fellow band members and Minnesota music lovers are healthier thanks to Freedom to Breathe."

"My daughters, who are six and nine, have no idea what a smoking section is," says Katie Engman, a Twin Cities public health advocate and mother. "As parents, we do everything we can to give our kids the best future possible. Freedom to Breathe goes right along with clean water, car seats, access to healthy food, all those things we do to provide a healthy start and set a good example for our kids."

The statistics back up the personal stories. Air pollution from secondhand smoke particles in bars and restaurants decreased by more than 95% after the law went into effect, according to an American Journal of Preventive Medicine report in 2010. University of Minnesota researchers found that exposure to a tobacco-related carcinogen in nonsmoking hospitality workers had fallen by 85% within the first month of the law. Secondhand smoke exposure also decreased dramatically among members of the public, with 31% of Minnesotans reporting exposure to secondhand smoke in any location in 2014, down 25 percentage points from 2007, according to the Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey (MATS). The law also encouraged smokers to quit. MATS showed that adult smoking levels dropped from 17% in 2007 to a new low of 14% in 2014.

Minnesotans overwhelmingly support the Freedom to Breathe Act. According to a 2014 Blue Cross and Blue Shield public opinion survey, 87% of Minnesotans support the law.

The statewide Freedom to Breathe Act was the result of years of effort by health advocates and followed bold action in local communities throughout Minnesota. Moose Lake was the first city in the state to have its bars and restaurants go smoke-free. Other pioneering communities that were among the first in Minnesota to adopt smoke-free workplace laws include Mankato, Duluth and Olmsted County.

All the organizations that make up Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation celebrate the improvement Freedom to Breathe has made in people's lives. However, tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Minnesota and 55,000 Minnesota students will use tobacco this year. Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation will continue to pursue policies that reduce youth smoking, including keeping tobacco prices high, raising the tobacco age to 21, limiting access to candy-, fruit- and menthol-flavored tobacco and funding future tobacco control programs.

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