Clearing the Air: Tobacco Control Advocates Meet this Week

Sep 26, 2011, 5:33 PM, Posted by

The CDC has identified reducing tobacco use as a winnable battle, given that it is a major cause of preventable death and we know what works to prevent it. Giving everyone the opportunity to breathe smoke-free air – through smoke-free workplaces, bars and restaurants – is a key strategy. If some of the 52 percent of Americans currently living in areas with no smoke-free indoor air laws or partial smoke-free laws find themselves with more places to breathe freely this year, they may want to thank the 150 advocates, researchers and funders meeting this week at “Clearing the Air: An Institute for Policy Advocacy VII,” a tobacco control policy advocacy retreat held by Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.

Smoke-free air advocates are critical to moving evidence into action around policy, influencing policy-makers and community leaders, and driving toward better community health. The Clearing the Air retreat brings together seasoned and new advocates, funders, researchers and other experts to create a movement for smoke-free air. Cynthia Hallett, M.P.H., executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, says the institute is designed to bring these individuals together to “share, learn, float new ideas and talk about challenges that people face in a safe space on how we can move forward.” For example, recent studies on the cardiovascular impacts of smoking came out of talks between researchers and local advocates, who knew that emergency room doctors had such data, and were able to link researchers with potential data sources.

Hallett commented on the benefits of the exchanges that happen at these meetings. “Often researchers and national advocates don’t hear what’s happening at the local level,” said Hallett. “Electronic cigarettes is another topic a previous institute focused on, and by giving local advocates help on crafting language to include in ordinances, the devices were included in legislation on restricting tobacco in some locales following the meeting.”

Issues on the agenda this year include:

  • Growing opposition from tobacco companies to tobacco control laws.
  • Working through missteps – such as allowing exclusions to laws through compromise discussions with the opposition in order to get some parts of a law passed. It can take years to strengthen those laws if exclusions are allowed, says Hallett.
  • Integrating and combining public health strategies across issues – such as using tobacco control successes to help develop the agenda and strategies for other campaigns, from taxes on sugary sodas to funding for safer streets. Hallett says a project called “Healthy Savannah” in Georgia started with smoking issues, and then was able to leverage that success to support other community health issues.
  • Talking about new agendas – such as letting people know that their smoking hurts other people. “Clearing the Air” will showcase the stories of casino workers who love their job but are concerned about their health because of the heavy cigarette smoking at the casinos.
  • Talking about successes – such as using graphs to show measurements of indoor air quality studies, which detail graphically that indoor air where smoking takes place is as bad as air quality outdoors on what the EPA considers worse days. “It’s a great visual cue,” says Hallett. “You show the graph before and after the law goes into effect.”

Other challenges to be discussed this year include the potential for weakening of some smoke-free air laws – 16 are under threat, three have been weakened and others are pending. Hallett says another key issue is that some funders are shifting tobacco money to other areas, because they think “the fight is done.” Hallett says the 52 percent of Americans still in need of stronger smoke-free air laws are typically in poorer states, and have greater health issues. “If anything, we need more money. The public needs to understand that this is still a very important issue. Donors must understand that the job still isn’t done.”

>>For more smoke-free air news, read tobacco coverage on NewPublicHealth.

WEIGH IN: What are you doing in your community to promote smoke-free air?


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