WORTHINGTON -- It has been three years since the Freedom to Breathe Act was passed in Minnesota, banning indoor smoking in all public spaces, including bars and restaurants.
Though groups have tried unsuccessfully in the past to change the comprehensive legislation, there is an effort now under way -- with bills introduced in both the Minnesota House and Senate -- to erode the bill.
"There's a lot of new faces in the legislature who didn't receive all the education and the strong support there was from their constituents on how we wanted this law -- how we wanted it to be a strong law," said Paula Bloemendaal, health educator and tobacco control coordinator for Nobles-Rock Community Health Services. "We didn't want loopholes in place that would create an uneven playing field for anybody."
The proposed changes in Senate File 168 and House File 188 seek approval for creation of smoking rooms within bars and restaurants. Bloemendaal said the legislation would mean a step backward for both customers and employees.
"We know ventilation doesn't work, and workers who go into those rooms would be exposed," she said. "It creates a lot of enforcement issues."
Bloemendaal said the Freedom to Breathe Act continues to have great support, with more than 77 percent of Minnesotans in favor of the legislation. ClearWay Minnesota, which continues to fund and promote a smoke-free state, reports that of the 77 percent, 41 percent strongly favor smoke-free public spaces. In addition, ClearWay reports hospitality workers are healthier, bars and restaurants are cleaner, and there haven't been any statistically significant employment changes in bars and restaurants statewide.
In follow-up visits with businesses after the legislation passed, Bloemendaal said the feedback was business either stayed the same or increased. Other positive news also resulted from the legislation.
"Smoke-free laws are one of the most effective ways to help people quit -- that and increasing the price of tobacco," she added.
Since the Freedom to Breathe Act took effect Oct. 1, 2007, Bloemendaal said there have been "very few" violations of the law in Nobles and Rock counties. Those reported are not from bars and restaurants, but rather warehouses, shops and company vehicles, she added.
Today, 29 states across the country have enacted comprehensive smoke-free laws. Bloemendaal is hopeful Minnesota will keep its legislation in place, but supporters need to speak up.
"We want our legislators to know that we like it and we're going to continue to ask for it to stay intact and stay strong," Bloemendaal said, urging people to contact their state senators and representatives and speak out against the newly introduced bills.
Meanwhile, work continues to increase the places where people cannot smoke indoors. Bloemendaal said she is making progress on smoke-free apartments, with 20 apartments designated as smoke-free in Nobles County, and about 15 apartments in Rock County.
"There are several more that we want to pursue," she said.
There are two options for owners of apartment complexes interested in going smoke-free -- they can either phase in the new rule as people move out, or set a quit date for residents.
Bloemendaal is also working to address smoke-free daycares, although she said there are few daycares in the two counties that have people smoking in them after daycare hours.