Sunday, March 26, 2006

I decided to take a brief detour from the usual discussion. The below is an editorial I wrote recently for a popular website in Houston's African American community. If you learn new information after reading this piece, be motivated to ask similar questions in your own communities.

Cuando mi amigo necesita ayuda, se llama para cambios rapidos.

Nobility In Policy Making:
Why A Strong Smoking Ordinance is Advantageous for Houston

“Hello, Ms. Lifeguard. I’d like to swim on the non-peeing side of the pool please.”

What an absurd request since there is obviously no effective way to prevent urine from dispersing itself throughout the waters of a swimming pool. The irrational nature of this statement demonstrates the very basis of an important public policy debate currently proceeding in Houston that surrounds the implementation of strong city indoor air quality legislation that will save lives and improve quality of life. The national debate began over 30 years ago and has FINALLY reached our city affectionately known as The Fattest and Most Polluted City in the USA.

The Concern
Environmental tobacco smoke, also known as secondhand smoke (SHS), is a toxic air pollutant that will claim approximately 38,000 American lives this year. Almost 400 of those deaths will occur in the Houston area. SHS contains 4,000 chemicals, 40 of which cause cancer in humans, including: cyanide, arsenic, carbon monoxide, benzene, ammonia and formaldehyde. Either inhaling the puffs of a smoker or passive smoke from a burning cigarette, pipe or cigar can expose one to SHS. From workplaces to households, anyone who is exposed to SHS is at an increased risk for developing cancer or other severe health problems.

There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke, and smoking that is permitted indoors places countless people at risk. Essentially, tobacco smoke is a gas that does exactly what it is designed to do: it moves freely about in space. Although the sight and smell of tobacco smoke may wane within seconds of its release, science tells us it is not gone. The toxic smoke lingers in the air until inhaled into human lungs where it can cause numerous deadly health conditions including lung cancer, heart disease, asthma, bronchitis, and more. So in the same way you cannot block the dispersion of urine in a pool, there is no way to block the dispersion of toxic smoke in the air.

That is why advocacy groups like Houston Communities for Safe Indoor Air (HCSIA) are insisting that our city adopt strong safe indoor air policies that will eliminate smoking in all workplaces and public places. Such is required in order to protect the rights of nonsmokers to breathe smoke-free air. Proposed solutions that include provisions for secluded smoking only areas and/or ventilation systems should not be supported since employees who must service those areas are still exposed and ventilation devices do not remove the threat of carcinogens in the air.

Healthy People 2010, our nation’s focus statement that identifies the most significant preventable threats to health, recommends action to reduce the proportion of nonsmokers exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. The experts who formulated this document stated that “developing strategies and action plans to address one or more of these indicators can have a profound effect on increasing the quality of life and the years of healthy life and on eliminating health disparities—creating healthy people in healthy communities.” Exposure to secondhand smoke is preventable. The National Cancer Institute issued the following analysis regarding indoor air legislation:

Through the continued implementation of clean indoor air policies aimed at eliminating secondhand smoke exposure in workplaces, restaurants and bars, and public spaces such as beaches and parks, there has been a significant reduction in the level of secondhand smoke exposure in shared environments.

So why are Houston’s leaders so opposed to taking swift and responsible, resolute action? After all, the facts are astounding.

The Facts

▪ The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified secondhand
smoke (smoke that comes from a lighted cigarette, pipe, or cigar or is exhaled by a smoker) as a Group-A carcinogen, which means that there is sufficient evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer in humans.

▪ This year, 38,000 nonsmokers will die of heart disease and 3,000 will die of lung cancer from breathing secondhand smoke. Approximately, 400 of these deaths will occur in the Houston area this year.

▪ Secondhand smoke is a leading cause of crib death in infants.

▪ Secondhand smoke increases the number of asthma attacks and the severity of asthma in hundreds of thousands of asthmatic children.

▪ Secondhand smoke increases the risk of middle ear infections, pneumonia and bronchitis resulting in over 300,000 infections in children each year.

▪ In Texas, 22 percent of adults and 24 percent of high school students currently smoke. Tobacco use in Texas claims 24,100 lives and costs $4.55 billion in health care expenditures each year.

▪ In October 2005, Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services released its strategic plan and identified clean air as a priority public health issue over the next five years.

▪ People of color are the least likely to be protected under smoke-free workplace policies and more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke because of occupation in service or hospitality industries.

▪ Sitting in a non-smoking section of a restaurant is like smoking 1½ cigarettes for the nonsmoker.

▪ Restaurant and bar workers have a 50% higher risk of lung cancer than all other nonsmokers.

▪ Studies have shown that smoke-free laws have no negative impact on restaurant and bar sales, employment or tourism.

The health of our Houston workforce and citizens has been needlessly assaulted far too long. Studies indisputably indicate that indoor air policies reduce employee leave and the frequency of hospital urgent care visits. Because a large number of employees exposed to SHS are uninsured, state and county health services must absorb skyrocketing medical costs for treatment. Thus, enacting a smoking ordinance is also a fiscally responsible decision for taxpayers who must bear the burden of these expenditures.

One may again ask why Houston leaders have not prioritized their constituents’ health by supporting strong policies that would dramatically improve the health of our uninsured workforce and prevent needless loss of life. Two prevailing point of views couch this debate: health impact versus economic impact. The health impact has been addressed; let us now flip the coin.

The Opponents
It seems the business interests of this city have recklessly reduced a major health and quality of life issue to dollars and cents. Restaurants and bar owners are concerned they will lose business if indoor smoking is restricted. Further, they believe their business is private property, and they are entitled to choose whether they will implement such a policy. Beer companies are worried that bars will not able to sale as much of their product. Tobacco companies are afraid they will lose revenue if smoking is discouraged indoors; people will not smoke as many cigarettes. Private clubs are concerned their clientele will retreat to outlying cities where indoor smoking is still allowed. Convention bureaus are fearful that ordinances will reduce tourism. Smokers feel their right to smoke is being infringed upon.

The reality is negative economic ramifications resulting from indoor air policies are unjustifiable. It should be noted that the No. 1 and No. 2 populated states in America, New York and California, have adopted statewide smoking ordinances and have experienced no economic handicap since implementation. Restaurants, bars, private clubs, tourism and beer in these states are still alive and well. Other states including Delaware, Washington, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have also successfully adopted strong policies.

Finally, contrary to most spin arguments and accusations that this topic is fractious, the right to smoke is not at issue here; however, the right for nonsmokers to breathe safe indoor air is at issue. The right of workers to earn a decent living in a safe working environment is also paramount. Opponents to indoor air policies should look beyond unsubstantiated fears and consider the tremendous tax money to be saved from reduced illness among the uninsured, the reduced number of employee sick days, the reduction in needed janitorial services, and the greater potential increase in nonsmoker clientele who are will happily patronize smoke free establishments.

The Choice
Public health and well-being should carry no price tag. If you care about the health of our workers and families, the choice is clear. The responsibility rests on the citizens to educate our community leaders and demand a remedy that adequately respects and protects citizens who have made a conscious lifestyle decision not to smoke. That remedy is strong clean indoor air policies that safeguard workers and citizens from secondhand smoke in all workplaces and public places. It is the right answer for Houston.

Houston Communities for Safe Indoor Air (HCSIA) –
Americans for Nonsmokers Rights Foundation (ANR) –
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) –
Harris County Health and Environmental Services –
National Cancer Institute (NCI) –
Tobacco Scam –