Freeborn County sees 8-percent drop in smoking

Published 10:43 pm Wednesday, November 15, 2017

It may sound like a barbecue, but the Great American Smokeout isn’t celebrating hearty ribs. Instead, it’s celebrating hearty lungs.

The Great American Smokeout is observed Thursday by the American Cancer Society, as the organization encourages smokers to use the date to quit. According to the American Cancer Society as well as Blue Zones Project organization lead Ellen Kehr, support can make a big difference in helping people quit. The day is set for the third Thursday in November every year. Kehr said the Blue Zones worksite wellness committee uses the month of November and the week of the smokeout to encourage employees to support each other.

According to county health ranking statistics, the adult smoking rate in Freeborn County has dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent over seven years. Kehr said the closest rate of the surrounding counties is three percentage points above Freeborn County.

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“We are clearly doing something very right in Freeborn County,” Kehr said. “We are just far outpacing any of the other counties in how we’ve dropped these tobacco rates.”

Kehr believes the key to the success in Freeborn County is the cooperation between different community players to put an emphasis on cutting smoking rates.

“We didn’t say it’s the healthcare sector needs to do this, we didn’t say the worksite sector, we didn’t say the public sector,” she said. “We said, ‘Everybody needs to do this together.’”

According to both Kehr and Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams, initiatives aimed at curbing tobacco use were done in phases. With the city, it started with Albert Lea City Hall, then moved to Albert Lea City Arena, and later came the 2015 Tobacco Free Parks ordinance.

“I think we had a lot of, you know, supportive members from both the Blue Zones organization (and) employers who had basically instituted the same policy in their grounds, and we also had a lot of youth who came in and talked about not wanting to be around a tobacco environment,” Adams said.

He said this was specifically true of the arena, and the youth community voices helped convince the council to institute broader regulations. The health of younger generations was also a factor in the decision to make City Hall a tobacco-free campus because of the location of the library and the draw it has to children.

While Adams said there was some pushback regarding city governance of individual rights, he said the research regarding tobacco’s health dangers was enough to make the decisions to limit tobacco use on city properties.

Kehr said some credit for and pride in the drop of adult smoking rates should go to individuals themselves.

“Adult smoking rates don’t go down unless adults stop smoking,” she said.

At 15 percent, Freeborn County’s adult smoking rate is now below the state and national average, according to Kehr. The best performers in the country are at close to 14 percent.

“We are about a point off from the best,” Kehr said.

For the Blue Zones Project, the next step in continuing to drop smoking and tobacco use rates is to focus on young people in the community. According to Kehr, many smokers start young.

“There are a lot of different things that we can do to specifically target the young people, because the tobacco industry is targeting the young people,” Kehr said. “So we need to offset that.”

While Adams said the city does not have any concrete plans for continuing to drop the smoking rate in Freeborn County, he said he has heard some discussion within the community of raising the age required for tobacco sales from 18 to 21. This is something the city won’t discuss formally unless the community brings it further forward, Adams said.

In addition to city ordinances, work in the housing sector means there are more than 550 “smoke-free” units available in apartment complexes that have chosen a tobacco-free environment. According to Kehr, 13 of the top 20 worksites in the county also have tobacco-free campuses.

“It seems the more traction that we get from all of these different sectors, the better our ability is to affect even more change,” she said. “The more worksites that engaged just led to other worksites following.”

The challenge now is to keep momentum.

“This is not a thing where, ‘Hooray for us, now we’re done,’” Kehr said. “We need to keep doing more. … Fifteen percent is great, but it’s not zero.”

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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