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Science backs the smoke-free workplace law

Bartender Leo Dressen of Red Wing is absolutely convinced he's healthier today because of Minnesota's Freedom to Breathe Act.

The law, which took effect a year ago Oct. 1, prohibits smoking in all Minnesota workplaces, including bars and restaurants.

The fact that Dressen hasn't had a single asthma-related incident since that time is only one of the reasons he believes the smoking ban is a good idea.

He also has scientific proof that his exposure to cancer-causing agents in secondhand smoke has been dramatically reduced.

Dressen participated in a University of Minnesota Cancer Center and ClearWay Minnesota study that measured the effects of workplace exposure.

"I dislike secondhand smoke," said Dressen, 25, who studied chemistry in college. "So I volunteered to be a guinea pig for science" after learning from Goodhue County Public Health workers that the U of M was looking for test subjects.

Dressen apparently was an ideal candidate -- a nonsmoker with limited exposure to secondhand smoke at home or at places other than work.

His primary exposure was at the Bierstube on Withers Harbor Drive, where he started working as a waiter in June 2006 and as a bartender in early 2007.

The study involved testing subjects the morning after they had worked an eight-hour shift -- once before the smoking ban, and again after it was in effect.

The difference was dramatic. Results of the urine tests showed that after the smoking ban, there was an 83 percent decrease in bar and restaurant workers' exposure to nicotine, and an 85 percent decrease in their exposure to cancer-causing agents in secondhand smoke.

"I didn't know what to expect," Dressen said. "I was interested in finding out the results," since he was aware of the potential hazards from secondhand smoke.

Dressen estimated that before the workplace smoking ban, 50 percent to 70 percent of customers in both the restaurant and the bar were smokers. There was a nonsmoking section but it consisted of just a half-wall.

"It's been great for my personal health. I lived with secondhand smoke growing up," since his parents smoked, and for years he has had issues with asthma and allergies -- until now. "For health reasons,"

he said, "I greatly appreciate it."

As a worker, Dressen added, "I noticed a decline in business,"

especially involving customers who eat and smoke. "Many of them still come, but it's a shorter stay, and they drink less."

He's not convinced the smoking ban is the only factor. The poor economy also means that people have less money to eat out and spend time in bars, Dressen said.

He just doesn't see as many large groups of people who drink and eat, then socialize for five or six hours.

"Patrons have started to come back," he said. "I've seen an increase in more families with younger children," and some nonsmokers who come now because the restaurant and bar are smoke-free.

Red Wing is at a disadvantage, he said, because it's easy for people to drive over the bridge to eat and drink.

"I think if Wisconsin had the law, it would be a level playing field," he said.

But even if it means fewer customers and less in tips, Dressen believes in Freedom to Breathe.

"Personally," he said, "I think my health is more important than making a few extra bucks."

A lot of his co-workers feel much the same. "Some co-workers that smoked -- a lot of them tried to quit smoking after the ban," he said.

"Two were successful and two were not successful.

"I think it's helped a lot of people quit. They're not enticed to be smoking from being around smokers in restaurants and bars."