Saturday, November 19, 2011

20 stinking years later, finally a state smoking ban (June 14, 2008)

Current mood: pleased

During a rehearsal for my high school play in 1973, while playing violin in the orchestra pit, I had to be taken home early, nauseated by a single cigarette. Back then, teachers could smoke in school buildings (though not in class), and the play's director was a smoker. One man's one cigarette, in an 800-seat auditorium, fully 80 feet away, made me so ill I had to put my instrument down in mid practice, and ask to be taken home. Ever since that afternoon back in 9th grade, I have wanted to see smoking restricted. For over a generation, I had to patiently explain, person by person, why these restrictions had to be: Because someone else's smoking made people ill and they were powerless to do anything about it.

While I was merely nauseated, though, careful research was showing that other people's cigarettes were causing real harm in non-smokers. In the mid-1980s, then-U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop published a series of reports summarizing research to date. I own seven of these reports, and have read every one of them cover to cover. Each is not a single study, but a summary of many existing studies. Key among them is the 1986 report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking, "representing the work of more than 60 distinguished physicians and scientists, both in this country and abroad," to quote its foreword. Continuing that quote:
After careful examination of the available evidence, the following overall conclusions can be reached:
1.  Involuntary smoking is a cause of disease, including lung cancer, in healthy nonsmokers.
2.  The children of parents who smoke, compared with the children of nonsmoking parents, have an increased frequency of respiratory infections, increased respiratory symptoms, and slightly smaller rates of increase in lung function as the lung matures.
3.  Simple separation of smokers and nonsmokers within the same air space may reduce, but does not eliminate, exposure of nonsmokers to environmental tobacco smoke.

With that impetus, Pennsylvania got its first indoor air legislation in 1988, following unsuccessful tries in several previous years. However, it was seriously flawed, with many exceptions and no teeth. Its most egregious shortcoming was its blanket pre-emption of all existing and future legislation at the local level. As if this was not enough, it was signed into law the day and hour of the Lockerbie Scotland terrorist air disaster, so it got little news coverage.

For 20 years, this is all we had. With more holes than Swiss cheese, very little actually changed. There were also a few years in there in which there was some question as to whether the pre-emption clause was still on the books, something about the section being repealed, then the repeal being repealed, and whether that was legal, blah blah blah. What we needed was a stiff new law, much like many other states had enacted in the two passing decades.

Pennsylvania is a difficult state in which to get anything done. Compared to most other states, its legislature is huge, with 203 representatives in the House and 50 senators, all full time, all highly paid. Think entrenched. A good many of these were in office for the 1988 legislation, and many others from that era are now lobbyists. Big Tobacco has a strong grip on what gets done here. The 1988 law came to be only because of a gut-and-rewrite procedure: Pass different versions of a bill in the House and Senate, then get a joint conference committee to work out the differences. Once in conference, they can rewrite it any way they want, with little input from the public, but plenty from lobbyists. Most of the legislation that got put in place was actually written by a legislative aide who was a two-pack-a-day smoker, with great assistance from a tobacco lobbyist. I was involved in the process on a daily basis during the Summer of 1988, watching as what started out as strong restrictions was gutted and watered down in a series of drafts, then finally voted into place as Act 26 of 1988.

It happened again in 2008, following much the same script. Good, restrictive bills passed the House and Senate, but differed in some details. Governor Rendell appointed a joint conference committee, but only two of its six members came from the restrictive camp. What emerged was watered down from the original, but 95% of it was intact, so this is truly a step forward.

What pleased me was that my rep and senator listened to me when, back in November 2005, I sent them the following letter. Both supported strong bans from then forward.

While indoor smoking is not a hot-button issue right now, here's some info to take to heart for when it is.

From the British medical journal Tobacco Control, an independent, peer-reviewed, scientific public health journal, an article ran in the March 2003 issue entitled "Review of the quality of studies on the economic effects of smoke-free policies on the hospitality industry" (vol. 12, pages 13-20).  This is a summary of about 100 such financial-impact studies conducted after implementation of restaurant or tavern smoking bans.  In short, it concluded:
    * Studies conducted or funded by tobacco industry interests usually (81%) found a negative impact.
    * Studies conducted by independent, educational, governmental or health organizations almost always (96%) found a negligible or positive impact.

Furthermore, the quality of industry studies was always in question.  There exist four accepted measures of objectivity in research of this type.
    * Only one industry study (of 31 conducted) met even one of the four objective measures.
    * Not one industry study met all four objective measures.
    * Not one industry study was reviewed by peers for research accuracy.
    * In contrast, all 35 studies which met all four objectivity measures found a negligible or positive impact.

I could go on, but the bottom line is, when the issue of indoor smoking does arise (e.g., restaurants, bars, casinos, etc.), and the industry decries such restrictions claiming that it will hurt business, don't believe them.  The real research shows that it will improve business, if it affects business at all.

I want to stand up and scream every time I hear someone say their restaurant or bowling alley or bingo hall or casino will face financial ruin if smoking is banned. Not true! It has been well documented just how Big Tobacco goes about shaping public opinion on this (Tobacco Control [British Medical Journal], March 2003; Consumer Reports, May 1994), but the media publishes it, and people just accept it. 

The point to take home in all of this is it's not about smokers, but workers. Nobody should have to put their life on the line to hold a job. Any employer who purposely piped poisonous gases into the workplace would be shut down. But without this legislation, any employer could insist the employees inhale a known Class 1 carcinogen. Smokers really have nothing to do with it.
For any smokers whose feathers get ruffled in all this, I have but three words to say: Too bad. Quit. For me, at least, after 35 years, I can go out in public and not have to worry about getting sick.


bus15237 said...

One of my more potent blog posts ever. It tells how one person can make a difference, both good and bad. It especially describes how state government works.

bus15237 said...

Comment on the original 2008 MySpace post:

With all my health problems I'm stoked for this ban. I didn't choose to have my lungs destroy themselves...they were doing that all on their own. On July 25th 2005 my life changed for the better. I had a double lung transplant at UPMC Presby, and so things like this ban are awesome.