Guest Column: Reduction in smoking rates outpaces nation

Published 10:20 pm Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Guest Column by Ellen Kehr

Today, on the eve of the “Great American Smoke Out,” about 36.5 million Americans still smoke cigarettes, and tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the world. Smoking kills people — there’s no safe way to smoke tobacco, and as many as 20 percent of the people who die from lung cancer in the United States every year do not smoke or use any other form of tobacco. In Albert Lea and Freeborn County, we are working together to protect the health and well-being of our residents by making the healthy choice the easy choice. We understand the tremendous health risks that tobacco use and secondhand smoke cause and are working together to protect all of our residents from the dangers of secondhand smoke and to help those who want to quit do so.

Ellen Kehr

In the past, Albert Lea and Freeborn County had higher than average adult smoking rates. Today, we have reversed that trend and saved many lives. Working together as partners, using high level policy, systems and environmental change, we have been able to make significant improvement in the area of tobacco use and smoke-free environments. In seven years, the adult smoking rate in Freeborn County has dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent. This reduction far outpaces other counties, cities, states and the nation. It has taken many years of hard work and commitment to achieve these dramatic results; however, both the lives and money saved are well worth the effort. Our residents are saving $9.5 million a year on health care costs, and the lives saved can never be calculated in numbers only. 

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On a public health level, the city of Albert Lea and Freeborn County have both adopted tobacco-free grounds policies, and in 2015 the city of Albert Lea passed a tobacco-free parks ordinance to protect all residents, especially our children, from secondhand smoke. In 2010, the Freeborn County Fair Board made an important statement on the desired environment for community events by designating both Children’s Day and Senior Day at the Freeborn County Fair as smoke-free. In multi-unit housing, Shady Oaks led the way by establishing a smoke-free environment for all its residential units. This policy has now become a requirement for public housing on the national level. Today Albert Lea has more than 550 smoke-free units available in apartment complexes that have chosen a tobacco-free environment. Both the private and public sector have created opportunities for renters to make a healthy choice for themselves and their families.

Business and industry has also been a strong driver in tobacco-free initiatives. Thirteen of our top 20 worksites and many more of our smaller worksites have stepped up to ensure the safety of their employees by adopting tobacco-free campus polices. These employers believe no one should have to choose between their job and their health. For business and industry, good health is good business, and today thousands of Albert Lea employees work in a completely tobacco-free environment.

The American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout is on the third Thursday in November each year. This year, we can celebrate both as a community and individuals how far we have come and make a renewed commitment to keep moving forward. Smokers are encouraged to use the date to take an important step toward a healthier life by making a plan to quit, or by planning in advance and quitting smoking that day. Organizations are encouraged to do their part in helping smokers quit and protecting non-smokers from secondhand smoke. Quitting tobacco is not easy, but it can be done. Whether you’re a smoker, someone who uses smokeless tobacco or someone trying to help a friend or loved one, get involved and support each other. We have come a long way since 2010. Together we are saving lives by making the healthy choice easy for all.

Ellen Kehr is the organization lead for the Blue Zones Project-Albert Lea.