The state-wide smoking ban is having an unadvertised consequence: More smokers are trying to quit.

Since the ban went into effect Oct. 1, the state's two largest health plans and the anti-tobacco organization ClearWay have seen a sharp spike in the number of people using nicotine replacement products and smoking cessation counseling programs.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota said that between September and October the number of people who enrolled for its telephone hotline counseling service jumped to 525, an increase of 43 percent. Compared to October 2006, the number of over-the-counter products like the patch and nicotine gum that it provided to members tripled to a total of 10,000 claims.

"It's doing what we like it to do," said Marc Manley, medical director for population health at Blue Cross. "Helping people decide to quit."

Medica, Minnesota's second-largest health plan, said it has also seen a 40 percent increase in the number of members seeking counseling.

And ClearWay Minnesota, an anti-tobacco organization that provides a variety of quit-smoking programs for Minnesotans, has seen similar trends. A total of 693 people enrolled in its web-based program in October, an increase of 8 percent compared to the same month a year earlier. And already 27 employers have asked ClearWay to supply an on-site smoking counselor in January to help their workers quit. That compares to 76 companies in all of 2007, said Michael Sheldon, communications manager for ClearWay.

All the programs provide regular support, counseling, and nicotine replacement products for smokers who want to quit.

Minnesota is among 22 states that have passed smoke-free laws that outlaw smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants and bars. The expressed intent of the law is apparent in its name -- the Freedom to Breathe Act. Health and anti-tobacco activists lobbied for it as a way to protect workers, children, and nonsmokers from the dangers of secondhand smoke. But experts have long known that smoking bans not only provide a powerful inspiration for people to quit, but they also make it easier for them to succeed.

Health experts also said the ban on smoking in bars targets a special group: young adults. They smoke at nearly twice the 18 percent rate of older adults in Minnesota. Many in the 18--to-24-year-old age group say they smoke only occasionally. For many, that means they smoke when they drink.

It's too soon to say whether the ban will have an impact on smoking rates. Quitting takes months, and many attempts, experts say. Both Clearway and Blue Cross said that about a third of the people who sign up for counseling services succeed in quitting.

But Manley said that a state-wide ban could eventually reduce the smoking rate by one or two percent, depending on other factors such as cigarette taxes and marketing support for smoking cessation programs.

New York City, for example, raised the price of cigarettes, banned smoking and heavily advertised smoking cessation services all at the same time. Smoking rates there dropped 11 percent in two years, he said.

"That is the perfect storm," he said. "They did all three things at the same time."

Josephine Marcotty • 612 673 7394