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State's foster homes may be next to go smoke-free

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, is a co-sponsor of a bill that would require Minnesota's foster care homes to be smoke-free. FILE PHOTO | STATE CAPITOL BUREAU

DULUTH -- The "no-smoking" sign will be on for homes with foster children, if a bill in the Minnesota Legislature is passed.

The legislation would follow the lead of St. Louis, Lake and Beltrami counties, which already require foster homes to be smoke-free, said Jill Doberstein, Duluth-based program manager for tobacco control with the American Lung Association in Minnesota.

State Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, a sponsor of the bill, said it was introduced too late in the current session to be passed as stand-alone legislation. There's still a chance it could be passed this year as part of an amendment to another bill, he said. Otherwise, there will be an effort to pass it next year.

"I think the general public, when this is explained to them, would support it," Huntley said.

If the legislation became law, it would make Minnesota the 18th state to have a ban on smoking in foster homes for children, Doberstein said. St. Louis County, like some of those states, also prohibits smoking in vehicles used to transport foster children. The Minnesota legislation doesn't go that far but could be amended to add vehicles, Doberstein said.

Before he was a St. Louis County commissioner, Steve O'Neil and his wife, Angie Miller, lobbied for the county ban, which Doberstein said went into effect in 2002. O'Neil and Miller drew from their own experiences as foster parents in advocating for smoke-free foster homes.

"When you get licensed to go into foster care, you have to go through all kinds of hoops and inspections," O'Neil said. "So, for example, you can't have peeling paint, because we would not expose children to lead paint.

We would not expose children to asbestos; you're tested for that. All of which make perfect sense, right? So why would we want kids to be exposed to secondhand smoke all day while they were there, 24/7, for months?"

Randy Ruth, president of the Minnesota Foster Care Association, said the organization has addressed the issue in the past, but not this time around. The majority of foster parents probably would be on board with the legislation, he said.

"There's always going to be that lifelong smoker that thinks it's an invasion of their privacy," said Ruth of Burnsville, Minn., who with his wife has cared for foster children for more than 40 years. "Personally, I would not object to it because I'm a lifelong nonsmoker."

David Sutton, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, said the nation's largest tobacco company doesn't plan any lobbying on the legislation. Philip Morris acknowledges that "secondhand smoke can cause conditions such as asthma, respiratory infections, cough, wheeze, middle ear infections and sudden infant death syndrome," Sutton said in an e-mail.

The tobacco company believes adults should avoid smoking around children, Sutton said, and that smoking should be banned in "areas occupied primarily by children, such as playgrounds, schools and day-care facilities."

But it opposes what it calls "complete bans," including in homes.

"In private residences and in other private places, the individual owner should determine the smoking policy," Sutton said in his e-mail.

The state has a role to play when it comes to foster homes, Huntley said.

"We're in charge of these kids, and we have to decide what kind of life they're going to live in the foster care system," he said. "And I think we have a responsibility to make sure they're living in a healthy environment."

The state's taxpayers have a financial interest, O'Neil added.

"There are 8,000 kids in foster care in Minnesota, and they're all insured by the state of Minnesota, more or less," he said. "We're paying their health-care costs. Do we want to subject them to secondhand smoke?"

The American Lung Association has polled foster-care providers in Aitkin and Isanti counties and so far found none who object to the proposal, Doberstein said. Even those who do smoke said they already go outside to smoke, and they still could do that if the bill becomes law.

St. Louis County didn't see a decline in the number of foster parents as a result of its ban, O'Neil said.

JOHN LUNDY is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune. The Bemidji Pioneer and the News Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.