MN restaurant workers reflect on 10 years of being smoke-free

MN restaurant workers reflect on 10-years of being smoke-free

MINNEAPOLIS - Has it been 10 years already? A decade ago, this weekend, the Freedom to Breathe Act was passed in Minnesota, forcing smokers out of restaurants, bars and most other public places.

But has the smoking ban really had an effect on public health? When you ask restaurant workers, most would say it has.

At the Blackbird Cafe in Minneapolis, workers are just minutes away from their Saturday night dinner rush.

Cooks are busy prepping meals in the kitchen, servers are in the bar memorizing the specials. There's a lot of things to worry about before customers show up. A smokey workplace however, is not one of those worries.

Most of the workers have never worked in a restaurant where smoking was allowed. Their boss Chris Stevens however, remembers those days perfectly.

"I just remember the smoking sections and just going out after work to like First Avenue for a show and there just being this haze of blue smoke in the space," Stevens remembers.

"Coming home from that and just reeking of smoke, it was kind of a bummer."

Stevens opened the Blackbird Cafe just months after the smoking ban went into effect. As an owner, he's never had to worry about cigarette smoke, but as a manager and chef, it was a difficult thing to deal with.

"It was a balancing act. To tell someone you can't smoke, that's anti-hospitality, but then you're upsetting everyone who doesn't want to be around it," Stevens says.

A smoky dilemma Stevens is happy to have in the past. Fellow restaurant worker Kim Imbach agrees, managing several restaurants herself, but she can relate on the other side of the issue, because, she's a smoker.

"I didn't officially become a smoker until I started working in the restaurant industry," Imbach says.

Back in those days, Imbach says servers actually preferred working in the smoking sections, because smokers were the best tippers.

Besides the customers though, Imbach says the industry itself creates a culture of smoking. She says the fast-paced, stressful atmosphere inspired many to light up.

"About 90% of the staff would smoke and about 10% wouldn't back in those days, but now, it's the opposite," Imbach says.

She credits a lot of that to the smoking ban, but admits, the industry still has a long way to go.

The data shows promising numbers when it comes to the overall health of restaurant workers. According to a U of M study, hospitality workers were exposed to 85% less tobacco-related carcinogens within the first month of the smoking ban.

Air pollution from secondhand smoke also decreased by more than 95% after the ban, according to a 2010 report from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Many restaurant workers however, were skeptical of the ban at first. Imbach says many were concerned about a customers leaving and never coming back.

A recent survey however, suggests public opinion has started to change. According to a 2014 survey conducted by Blue Cross Blue Shield, 87% of Minnesotans supported the smoking ban.

"It has encouraged people to quit," ClearWay Minnesota Communications Manager Mike Sheldon says. "We've seen the rate of smoking in Minnesota go down to about 14%, which is lower than the national average."

Despite these promising numbers, Sheldon says the state still has a long way to go, especially with youth. He says smoking still causes $3 billion in unnecessary health costs in Minnesota, and is still the number one cause of death.

That's why some cities in the state are now looking to up the smoking age. On Sunday, the smoking age in St. Louis Park will bump up to 21, becoming the second city in the state to do so after Edina made the change earlier this year.

 

© 2017 KARE-TV


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