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Chain-smoking TV characters represent progress in smoking cessation efforts

Americans love to revisit history, whether it is inside the doors of a museum, on the pages of a history book, or on television. This includes the millions of us who love watching Enoch "Nucky" Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, which is set during Prohibition, as well as Mad Men's Don Draper and his coworkers at Sterling Cooper Advertising in the 1960s.

Comparing their lifestyles to today's norms is just as interesting as analyzing the characters themselves. For instance, the United States has spent decades trying to get people to stop smoking and, more recently, protecting people from secondhand smoke exposure. Slowly but surely, smoking has become less acceptable, and today's norm is that smoking is not allowed in public places such as workplaces, restaurants, bars, and many outdoor spaces. It's hard for most of us to imagine working in an office while someone next to us chain-smokes like Mad Men's Don Draper.

As much as I dislike seeing people smoke on TV, these period shows remind us how far we've come.

When Minnesota began taking steps to clear the air of tobacco smoke, it was hard to find a location that was off limits to smoking. Even hospitals allowed it. Imagine babies taking their first breaths, only to consume their inaugural dose of secondhand smoke. Imagine getting on an airplane and having smokers light up shortly after take-off. Unthinkable!

An estimated 42 percent of Americans were regular smokers in the 1960s, and not many of them were trying to quit. Today roughly 20 percent of American adults smoke, and nearly 40 percent of them try to quit every year.

Four years ago, the state of Minnesota passed the Freedom to Breathe Act, which restricts smoking in nearly all enclosed public places. Minnesota was the 17th state to enact such a law, and 10 more states have since joined the list of smoke-free states. That means more than half of U.S. states now protect their residents and workers with smoke-free policies.

It now takes HBO and AMC to remind us that this dangerous behavior used to be the social norm.

We can be proud of how far we've come over the last 50 years. We can also set goals to further reduce - or eliminate - smoking over the next 50 years. After all, lung cancer is still the leading cancer killer in the United States for both men and women.

As we are reminded of how widely accepted smoking was during our nation's history, let's not forget to keep working together to reduce the harm caused by tobacco.

Pat McKone is a Director with the American Lung Association in Minnesota