Happy anniversary, Minnesota. For four years now we have enjoyed smoke-free air at work and play thanks to the Freedom to Breathe Act. It’s hard to remember a time when we had to think twice before taking our kids or older family members to a restaurant out of concern about the air quality. Indeed, the law has reduced exposure to secondhand smoke and created healthier workplaces.
Moreover, its real impact is measurable. Its popularity — 77 percent of Minnesotans support it — has led people to consider other ways to reduce tobacco’s harms. For example, during the last few years, many Minnesota adult smokers have voluntarily adopted smoke-free rules for their homes.
The Freedom to Breathe Act is one part of a layered strategy that is being implemented successfully in Minnesota and other parts of the country. In New York City, the adult smoking rate has reached an all-time low — 14 percent — and the number of New York City residents who smoke has dropped by 35 percent since 2002.
The city’s health commissioner humbly noted recently, “This progress didn’t just happen.” After a decade of stagnant smoking rates, it took a combination of smoke-free laws, higher tobacco prices, strong education and effective cessation resources to jump start a new pro-health trend.
In Minnesota, we’ve witnessed similar early successes:
• Statewide smoke-free law: Minnesotans report exposure to secondhand smoke in any space declined 11 percent since 2007 to a new low of 45.6 percent in 2010, according to the latest Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey.
• Tobacco cessation programs: According to the same survey, more than half of adult Minnesota smokers attempted to quit between 2009 and 2010. Our smoking rate has been consistently below the national average since 1999 thanks to strong education about tobacco’s harms, combined with the availability of QUITPLAN® Services and other stop-smoking programs.
• Tobacco prices: Raising the price of tobacco is one of the most effective ways to encourage current tobacco users to quit and improve health. This should be our next step. A tobacco price increase not only promises new state revenue, but has proven to be one of the best methods to encourage current smokers to quit and discourage new tobacco users from starting at all.
If we are intent on measuring our progress to a healthier population, the price we pay for tobacco use is palpable, taking the lives of more than 5,100 of our friends, family members and neighbors each year and costing us nearly $3 billion in excess health care costs [PDF].
So while you’re enjoying and celebrating the fresh air that Minnesota’s smoke-free law guarantees, remember that we need to continue our momentum. Cessation, education and, in particular, higher tobacco prices and clean indoor air, make the right combination for protecting Minnesotans’ health.
Cynthia Bemis Abrams is the president of Cynthia Bemis Abrams Leadership and PR Consulting. She serves on the ClearWay Minnesota board of directors.