Does Outside Smoking Bans Go Too Far

Federal and state governments are determined to curtail the growth and production of tobacco. Many State laws reflect this commitment. In New York City for instance, smoking is banned in parks and beaches. That’s because, the City Council passed the ban on the principle that a nonsmoker shouldn’t have to inhale even a tiny amount of secondhand smoke, whether in a bar of a Central Park Meadow.  When a smoking ban effecting bars went into effect in Evansville, Indiana, scores of residents complained, claiming that officials had gone too far by prohibiting the use of cigarettes in corner bars. In fact, both consumers and bar owners joined a chorus of city dwellers to demonstrate their displeasure with the city’s infringement upon their freedoms.

Complaints ranged from “You ought to be able to smoke in a bar, if people don’t like it, they can go outside,” and “I don’t smoke, but I don’t think it’s right to tell people they can’t do it,” while valid, they do sound a little self-centered when it comes down to the dangers of second hand smoke.

Another patron Mike Burton, 50, said a smoky atmosphere is expected when a person walks into a bar.

Burton said the ban is good for him, but smoke never stopped him from going to bars before.

Burkhart said. “People smoke, period.”

Kevan Tally, owner of the Corner Bar at 2668 Mount Vernon Ave., isn’t worried.

“I think within the city and our area, (banning smoking was) fairly done,” he said. “I backed the way (local lawmakers) did it more so than the way the state did it, with the exemptions and all.”

But Tally is frustrated that, as a business owner, the law dictates what he can and cannot do with his business.

One customer, Dan Belwood, 45, said the two options for smokers are either going to a friend’s house or buying electric cigarettes.

“I think all smoke ought to be restricted to outside,” Belwood said. “It’s good for the next generation because I don’t think our kids should be smoking.”

Ultimately, the folks in Evansville got use to the indoor smoking ban, but that certainly can’t be said for smokers in New York, who had to avoid certain outside areas when they chose to smoke.

Clearly, there is a strong public-health case for banning smoking indoors; the case for banning it outdoors is much weaker — particularly when it runs the risk of a backlash that could undermine the basic goals of the antismoking movement.

For 25 years I have testified before court proceedings, city council meetings and Congressional hearings in support of smoking bans in workplaces, including restaurants, bars and casinos. I base my position on the scientific evidence demonstrating that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke — the sort of levels you’d experience working in a smoky bar or restaurant — significantly increases the risk of respiratory disease, heart disease and lung cancer.

Inevitably, smoking-ban opponents ask me, “What’s next, banning smoking outdoors?” My answer has always been no: not only can people move around and thus avoid intense exposure, but smoke quickly disperses in the open air.

True, there is evidence that being near someone smoking, even outdoors, can result in significant secondhand smoke exposure. Researchers at Stanford found that levels of tobacco smoke within three feet of a smoker outside are comparable to inside levels. But no evidence demonstrates that the duration of outdoor exposure — in places where people can move freely about — is long enough to cause substantial health damage.

But that hasn’t stopped many opponents of smoking. Citing new research, they have argued that even transient exposure to tobacco smoke can cause severe health effects like heart disease and lung cancer. For example, last year the surgeon general’s office claimedthat “even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause cardiovascular disease and could trigger acute cardiac events, such as heart attack,” and that “inhaling even the smallest amount of tobacco smoke can also damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer.”

However, the surgeon general’s statement conflates the temporary negative effects of secondhand smoke on the circulatory system, which have been shown to occur with short-term exposure, with heart disease, a process that requires repeated exposure and recurring damage to the coronary arteries. It also conflates one-time DNA damage, which occurs with any carcinogenic exposure, with cancer risk, which likewise generally requires repeated exposure.

Moreover, bans like New York’s may actually increase exposure by creating smoke-filled areas near park entrances that cannot be avoided.

To make matters worse, in trying to convince people that even transient exposure to secondhand smoke is a potentially deadly hazard, smoking opponents risk losing scientific credibility. The antismoking movement has always fought with science on its side, but New York’s ban on outdoor smoking seems to fulfill its opponents’ charge that the movement is being driven instead by an unthinking hatred of tobacco smoke.

That, in turn, could jeopardize more important fronts in the antismoking fight, in particular the 21 states that still allow smoking in bars and restaurants.

A ban on outdoor smoking may provide a symbolic victory. But from a public health perspective, it’s pointless. Instead, antismoking organizations should focus on extending workplace protections, already enjoyed by millions of New Yorkers, to the 100 million Americans still denied the right to work without having to breathe in secondhand smoke.

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