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Health Groups Call To Restore Freedom To Breathe Act

Armen Hareyan's picture

Public smoking

Minnesota's leading health groups, local elected officials and workers joined together announces their grave concern about the current Minnesota House of Representatives version of the Freedom to Breathe Act.

Their move was spurred by the addition of a committee amendment that would leave thousands of Minnesotans unprotected.

"The current House bill contains a huge loophole," said American Cancer Society Board Member Nancy Tyra Lukens. "It leaves thousands of people in restaurants and bars exposed to deadly cancer-causing chemicals, and we quite literally can't live with that."

While a Senate-approved bill protects all hospitality workers from secondhand smoke, the House version would allow bars and restaurants with any liquor license to apply to local units of government for exemptions that would leave workers unprotected. Minnesota workers in offices, stores, schools, factories and government buildings such as the State Capitol have long been protected from the toxins in secondhand smoke.

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Health advocates were joined by local elected officials who say the House bill opens the door for a parade of bar and restaurant owners across Minnesota to approach local governments on a case-by-case basis to exempt their establishments.

"This change endangers employees and citizens, and is a prescription for community-by-community chaos," said Steve Cook, Mayor of Hutchinson, which has already passed a strong smoke-free law. "Surveys show our citizens overwhelmingly support our local smoke-free law. We just need a bill that will provide a more level playing field and make things more predictable for our businesses statewide. Instead, this loophole will set off a regulatory free-for-all and in the process put employees and citizens at risk. Everyone deserves better."

The bill is expected to be heard on the House floor this Thursday and a broad coalition of health advocates, workers, local government officials and businesses are urging House members to restore comprehensive workplace protections by removing the bar and restaurant worker loophole.

"Our mission is to prevent deadly diseases, and we can't look a restaurant or bar worker in the eye and say the House bill will achieve that mission," said Tyra Luekens. "Eighteen states have done this the right way without loopholes, and Minnesota can and should do it, too."

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, secondhand smoke annually kills more than 3,000 nonsmokers from lung cancer, approximately 46,000 from coronary heart disease and an estimated 430 newborns from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Closer to home, secondhand smoke costs the state and taxpayers more than $215 million and at least 580 Minnesotans their lives, as found in a recent Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota study.