Tobacco Control: Smoke-Free Air Laws Gain Momentum

Apr 25, 2011, 5:04 PM

Residents in 25 states and the District of Columbia are breathing a little easier these days.

Since 2000, their governments have enacted smoke-free laws that apply to all workplaces, restaurants and bars, according to a report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The new report underscores the strong momentum across the country to pass smoke-free workplace laws that protect all workers and the public from the serious health hazards of secondhand smoke,” says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The report projects that, at the current rate of progress, the entire nation could have laws banning smoking in all indoor areas of private sector worksites, restaurants and bars by 2020. These places are major sources of secondhand smoke exposure.

“As the U.S. Surgeon General and numerous scientific studies have found, smoke-free laws protect health without harming business,” said Myers.

In addition, polls and ballot initiatives repeatedly have shown that the public strongly supports smoke-free laws that apply to all workplaces and public places and protect everyone’s right to breathe clean air. (RELATED: See our interactive tobacco control map.)

“Every state should enact such a law,” Myers said.

For additional perspective on the CDC report, NewPublicHealth spoke with Maggie Mahoney, Deputy Director of the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium. The Consortium is a partner of the Public Health Law Network and is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

NewPublicHealth: Are all the laws that have been enacted the best they can be, or could some be strengthened?

Maggie Mahoney: As the CDC's report notes, the U.S. Surgeon General found in 2006 that no level of exposure to secondhand smoke is safe. It is for this reason that the public health community strives to pass smoke-free laws that — at a minimum — prohibit smoking in enclosed public places and in enclosed places of employment. A number of jurisdictions have gone beyond this minimum level of protection and have passed laws that prohibit smoking in certain outdoor areas where people gather or work, due to evidence that secondhand smoke does not necessarily dissipate quickly in outdoor areas where people are smoking.

A number of the existing laws were passed before the 2006 Surgeon General's Report [on secondhand smoke] was released, and could be strengthened to reflect the current science on this issue.

NPH: How hopeful are you that states that have not yet passed smoke-free laws will do so, and soon?

Mahoney: The public health community is dedicated to reducing tobacco use — the single most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States — as well as reducing exposure to secondhand smoke, which causes 3,000 nonsmoking Americans to die of lung cancer and 46,000 to die of heart disease each year. Those facts alone should compel all — and have caused many — lawmakers to pass strong smoke-free laws. Other lawmakers have been persuaded by data showing that tobacco use results in medical costs of $96 billion per year and lost productivity costs of $97 billion per year; that smoke-free laws do not negatively impact business revenues; and that courts have found that passing smoke-free laws is an appropriate use of the government's police power. In some jurisdictions where lawmakers have hesitated to act, the public has gone to the ballot to demand to be free of exposure to secondhand smoke. There has been tremendous progress in passing smoke-free laws, especially in recent years. This turning of the tide shows that it is only a matter of time before the remainder of the United States population is protected from exposure to secondhand smoke.

NPH: And are there any concerns that states with smoke-free laws could weaken or repeal them?

Mahoney: Any law that is passed has the threat of being repealed. Additionally, weak laws are still being passed in some jurisdictions — and some strong laws currently are facing the threat of being watered down — due to misperceptions by legislative bodies about the dangers of secondhand smoke; the desire of their constituents to breathe smoke-free air in their workplaces and in places they visit; or the potential effects on business revenues.

We've seen a couple of instances at the local level where smoke-free ordinances were repealed before they went into effect, and a few attempts at the state level to put repeal measures on the ballot. For example, in Campbell County, Ky., the ordinance was passed shortly after an election, but before the new county officials took office. The new county officials repealed the ordinance before it went into effect. And in South Dakota a smoke-free law was scheduled to go into effect in 2009, but implementation was put on hold after opponents put a repeal measure on the ballot. In November 2010, the citizens of South Dakota voted against the repeal attempt and decided to keep the smoke-free law. These situations are rare. It is more typical to see attempts to reopen smoke-free laws to add language allowing smoking in certain types of venues.

NPH: What are the sorts of questions you’ve been fielding on smoke-free laws recently?

Mahoney: Just in the last two weeks, we've reviewed draft amendment language that is being considered by a state legislature and discussed the ramifications of those possible amendments with public health advocates; researched penalty provisions in a draft local ordinance, to see whether they are consistent with state law; and conducted research to help a governmental attorney prepare her brief in a court case where a bar owner is arguing that a smoke-free law should be overturned.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.