Flashback Friday: Indoor Smoking Ban Took Effect 10 Years Ago

September 29, 2017 10:56 AM

When she looks back on her accomplishments at the state legislature, Kathy Sheran doesn't hesitate about putting the 2007 Freedom to Breathe Act at the top of the list.

The law, which took effect 10 years ago this week (on Oct. 1, 2007), put a stop to indoor smoking in many public places, including bars and restaurants. Essentially making going out for dinner, or spending an evening at the tavern, a smoke-free experience for patrons, unless they venture outside.


"It's such a significant health reform," said Sheran, the former DFL state senator from Mankato who helped lead the bill's passage in the legislature. "And since I came from a health care background, I was just so proud to be part of it."

Which isn't to say the bill, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was universally popular at the time.

It faced strong opposition from many in the hospitality industry, worried about the impact on their businesses.

"I was very upset about it," said Jim Haracz, who has owned Jimmy's Bar and Lounge in northeast Minneapolis the past 42 years. "I felt like it was government sticking its nose into small business. I didn't like them saying we had to ban smoking, which is legal, at privately-owned businesses."

Though Haracz said the law did put Minneapolis bars back on even footing with those in neighboring communities. Minneapolis had implemented such a ban in 2005.

"We had been losing a lot of smokers to places in Columbia Heights," he said. "That hurt us. So it at least made things a little more even when it went state-wide."

Sheran said the goal was never to restrict people from smoking. Just their right to do it in places where others were impacted.

"People would come up to me and say 'Why are you trying to take away my right to smoke,'" she said. "But there was nothing in that bill about prohibiting smoking. It didn't limit anyone's right to do it. It just limited their right to blow smoke in other people's faces."

Such a bill had been discussed before, but Sheran said a pair of factors helped give it momentum in 2007. The first was a 2006 report from the U.S. Surgeon General detailing the negative medical consequences second-hand smoke can have on those who inhale it.

And the second was the 1998 settlement of a lawsuit brought by the state and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota against several tobacco companies. It stipulated payments into a general fund that Sheran said helped provide educational resources she was able to use to bolster arguments for the bill.

Even so, she said passage was far from certain.

"It was a hard battle the whole time," she said. "It was not a slam dunk by any means. We had an army of people helping us - the American Cancer Society, the Minnesota Nurses Association ... ClearWay Minnesota was a big player."

She added, "What helped was having the ability to have those resources behind us. So we were able to go into a particular legislator's office and counter the impact of arguments others were making against the bill."

Sheran also said Pawlenty's willingness to sign the bill helped keep progress moving.

"There was bipartisan support for it and bipartisan opposition too," she said. "Gov. Pawlenty wasn't out front advocating for it. But he made it clear that if we got it to his desk, he'd sign it, and that was helpful. Sometimes people don't want to make the effort for a bill if they know the governor isn't going to sign it.

"But he made a promise and he kept to it."

Sheran believes opposition to the measure has dissipated over time.

"It's there, it's accepted and it's really not something you see a lot of people trying to change anymore," said Sheran, who served in the Senate from 2006-16. "And that's very satisfying."

Haracz said he and others in his line of work have adjusted to the law, even if they didn't support it.

"Everyone adapted," he said. "People still smoke. But they still come out too. Now that it's been in place for awhile, it's hard to imagine going back again."


Frank Rajkowski

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