Fifty years ago a crusty old sergeant in the United Sates Army, who had been through combat in World War II and the Korean War, told me that if I could complete my three-year enlistment without getting hooked on coffee or cigarettes, it would be an accomplishment.
And a half century later, my thanks go out to that tough old sarge for helping me set goals to start either one.
The idea then was that, for one thing, there was a lot of idle time and little money, and thus a lot of sitting around and drinking of coffee in the mess hall.
And cigarettes were just a few cents a pack at the PX and, even with the meager salaries we received ($99.37 a month after about 16 months), smoking was affordable for many.
I just never wanted to smoke and, despite the pleasing aroma of coffee in the morning, and living in a Sherburne County Scandinavian community where they drank coffee like the Russians consume vodka, I just didn’t like the taste.
For decades I put up with secondhand smoke as I sat with friends, or sometimes unthinking people even lit up in my car until I finally started asking them not to. I even wrote a column many years ago championing the rights of smokers, saying there was no law against it, although I felt there were many smokers who didn’t take others into consideration.
Then came the Freedom To Breathe Act in Minnesota five years ago that banned smoking in bars, restaurants and public workplaces.
And on the anniversary this past Monday, I couldn’t have been happier that it was passed, even though the idea went against some ideas I have about individual freedoms.
On Monday the owner of a tavern and bowling alley in St. Louis Park who had publicly opposed the ban said that there was an instant boost to his business after the ban, and that he was now happy about the ban.
He did, however, say he thinks stand-alone bars should be free to allow smoking. And he noted that his pull-tab business, and thus the business of a charitable gambling operation, had decreased dramatically.
On Monday there were lots of figures being thrown around, one showing that 16 percent of Minnesota adults smoke, down from 17 percent when the ban took effect. I’m not sure how accurate the figures are but ClearWay Minnesota says there are 5,100 state deaths a year related to smoking, and that the state has $3 billion in excess medical costs a year because of smoking.
The Minnesota Department of Health says the number of adults in the state exposed to secondhand smoke has fallen by 24 percent.
And Dr. Edward Ehlinger, Minnesota Department of Health commissioner, was quoted in a Monday story in the Sacramento Bee from California that a Mayo Clinic study shows a decline in heart attacks in the state since the ban began five years ago.
The American Lung Association says the tobacco industry spends $157 million a year in Minnesota marketing its products. It also says more than 6,800 Minnesota kids become daily smokers each year.
Hospitals in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas have stopped hiring smokers, and other hospitals are reported to be considering it.
I did an informal survey Monday of some smokers and nonsmokers. The five nonsmokers predictably said they liked the ban, and three of the five smokers who said they have learned to live with the law said they are OK with the law. The other two were outspoken in disagreeing
A friend, one of my heroes who quit smoking nearly 25 years ago (and quit using alcohol 36 years ago, both all on his own) told me as he rode an exercise bike Monday afternoon that he thought the ban was a good thing. “I just can’t stand to sit close to someone who is smoking,”he said.
Five years after the ban went into effect, it seems to be accepted in Minnesota, although in the winter it’s not quite as accepted by smokers when they have to step outside.
And the ethical question remains for me and others: Is it right to tell business owners they can’t allow smoking?
We can debate that until the cows come home. But after five years it appears Minnesotans are comfortable with the ban, and the healthier atmosphere it has produced.
I know I like it.