The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 1, 2012

Our View: Smoking ban is having the desired effect

The Free Press

— The sight of employees smoking outdoors in all weather is now commonplace. It's been five years since Minnesota passed a ban on smoking in bars, restaurants, workplaces and other public places. It was legislation authored by Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato.

State health commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger says a study from the Mayo Clinic shows a decline in heart attacks after the ban took effect. And the number of smokers -- while still at 620,000 people -- is steadily declining.

The study showing a reduction in heart attacks has to be taken with a small grain of salt. In other states and cities that enacted smoking bans, small-scale studies have often shown big declines in heart attacks -- by as much as 40 percent. But those studies appear to be overly optimistic. Larger studies have found definite health benefits and reduced hospitalizations and deaths, but generally at a more modest rate.

Whatever the exact figures, the health benefits are immense. A large, government study in England, where a smoking ban has been in place for five years, showed the number of adults who smoke dropped several percentage points.

Perhaps more importantly, children's exposure to smoke in England declined nearly 70 percent and a Scottish study showed a 15 percent reduction in the number of children with asthma admitted to the hospital in the years following their smoking ban. Another study there showed a 10 percent drop in premature births, which was linked to smoke-free environments.

A Minnesota study shows exposure to smoke has declined 11 percent since the law took effect. Those working in bars and restaurants saw the biggest benefit with a cancer-causing carcinogen in nonsmoking hospitality workers falling by 85 percent.

The smoking ban was a hotly debated issue at the time. Many people thought it went too far in limiting what adults choose to do. And many bar and restaurant owners feared the ban would cut badly into their business. But a state Department of Employment and Economic Development  study shows no economic decline in the entertainment industry since the ban was put in place.  

Quite simply, people who smoke donÕt stop going out -- they just move outside to smoke.

And the public has embraced the smoking ban with 79 percent now saying they favor the law.

Despite the smoking law and the known dangers of tobacco use, the battle continues to reduce smoking. The effort goes up against two immense obstacles: the intense addictiveness of smoking and the tobacco industry which  spends $157 million per year in Minnesota marketing its products.

Efforts to reduce smoking, through work-based incentives, education and the availability of smoking cessation programs by insurers such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield must continue and be increased.

And Congress, via the Farm Bill, needs to begin phasing out taxpayer subsidies going to tobacco farmers -- something being done in the European Union. There is no sense in state governments and all public health agencies working to curb smoking while at the same time the federal government subsidizes tobacco.

Having 5,100 Minnesotans die each year because of smoking -- and the increased health care costs shouldered by everyone -- is unacceptable.