Sunday, July 18, 2004

Cincinnati should go smoke-free


Cincinnati has just begun to consider widening its smoking restrictions, and elected officials are already nervous. They have yet to make up their minds which is worse - falling behind Columbus, Lexington, New York and other cities that have gone smoke-free, or risking a competitive disadvantage with tobacco state Kentucky across the river.

But council needs to re-authorize smoking regulations anyway, and anything short of protecting all workers' health would be just blowing smoke.

Most workplaces are already smoke-free since Cincinnati's Board of Health adopted clean indoor-air regulations in 1985. Bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and bingo halls were exempted. Most offices and hundreds of area restaurants have since gone smoke-free. Opponents of laws against indoor smoking base their arguments on the rights of smokers and employers to decide for themselves, but this debate is about more than just an individual's right to the entertainment of his choice.

Bars, restaurants and other hospitality sites are also workplaces. Lung cancer rates for waiters and waitresses rank near the top for employee groups. Should service people be forced to make a choice between their health and supporting their families?

Medical research in the last 20 years has built a more damning case against secondhand smoke as a Class-A carcinogen. Secondhand smoke is believed responsible for about 53,000 premature U.S. deaths a year, according to the National Cancer Institute and others. It is implicated in heart disease, cancers, asthma and other fatal diseases. Tobacco company officials now admit their product is harmful.

But successful campaigns in other cities to protect workers and nonsmokers from other people's smoke have hinged on how leaders framed the debate and built popular support. Advocates for indoor smoking restrictions in public places object to calling it a "ban." They want a "worker and nonsmoker protection law." No one is trying to stop people from smoking. All that clean indoor-air laws do is ask smokers to step outside.

Cincinnati needs to revisit its clean-air rules anyway. In August 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court in a Toledo-Lucas County case ruled that unelected health boards cannot on their own authority ban smoking in public places. No one has challenged Cincinnati's regulations in court, perhaps in part because they now seem minimalist compared with those in many other cities and states. Studies based on government-reported tax revenue have found that smoke-free policies generated more customers for every sector of the hospitality industry. That's not particularly surprising, because fewer than 23 percent of U.S. adults smoke.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece and Health Commissioner Malcolm Adcock are assembling a panel of advocates and opponents to make recommendations to council. It will take leadership to avoid a deadlock, a bunch of exemptions or some costly ventilation scheme that won't work. It doesn't cost a cent for smokers to step outside. Then everyone else is protected.

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