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Sowing Confusion in St. Charles

Residents of St. Charles County will soon have the opportunity to cast a vote for smoke-free air in all public places in St. Charles County, including restaurants, bars, and casinos.

For someone like myself, who has worked in public health for over 10 years and worked directly to assist those struggling to quit smoking, this is a no-brainer: something that improves health and has no legitimate downside. But for others, the issue may not seem so simple.

There is quite often a quarrel in my household, between myself and those around me who argue that business owners should have the right to choose whether or not they want to be smoke-free. In response to this argument, I must (ever so humbly) counter with the question: Since when have public health measures ever been a choice for business owners?

Restaurants, clubs and casinos are regulated by fire code to ensure they have appropriate evacuation signage, accessible fire extinguishers, operational sprinklers, and that occupancy limits are not exceeded. Food must be stored, prepared and served at specified temperatures and employees must wash their hands before handling it. All of these regulations exist for the sole purpose of keeping patrons and employees safe.

Smoking ordinances are no different.

According to the CDC, secondhand smoke exposure contributes to approximately 41,000 deaths among nonsmoking adults and 400 deaths in infants each year. Yes, that says INFANTS! Science shows secondhand smoke has the potential to cause heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking individuals, and in children it has been associated with an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, middle ear infections and worsened asthma. With over 60 cancer causing chemicals, there is no risk-free amount of secondhand smoke exposure; even brief exposure can cause immediate harm.

Many rigorous studies show that enacting a smoke-free indoor air ordinance is the best way to protect people from secondhand smoke exposure, especially in the workplace. Everyone should be protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke in bars and casinos the same way they are in offices.

Secondhand smoke is deadly, and an employee should not have to choose between his or her health and a paycheck.

We also know, from studying several other states who have enacted such policies, that these policies actually reduce overall smoking.

I’m sure that anyone who has struggled to breathe as a result of tobacco-related illness, or has tried to quit time and time again, would agree that cigarettes are not something youth should be experimenting with. We know nicotine is highly addictive, and how it impacts the brain, especially the developing brain of a teenager. And although smoking rates among youth have continued to decline nationwide, those rates among youth in Missouri are still higher than the national average. While the primary purpose of smoke-free ordinances is to protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke, these ordinances can also motivate people to quit using tobacco products and actually prevent the initiation of tobacco use.

Why does the great state of Missouri still allow smoking in workplaces? Twenty-six states have enacted statewide laws that prevent smoking in all enclosed workplaces. Twenty-six. In January, Illinois celebrated ten years of having the strictest smoking law in the United States. And what happened in all those states?

Let me first tell you what didn’t happen: Smokers weren’t persecuted. Businesses did not close. Revenue was not lost. In other words, the strongest arguments that pro-smoking advocates make—that profits will shrink and business will suffer—have been proven to be specious.

Not only did business remain profitable, and emergency room visits due to heart attacks, stroke, asthma and other respiratory related illnesses decrease, but all the ridiculous claims created by the tobacco companies were debunked. Most importantly smoking rates among both adults and teens fell. Because legislation in Missouri continues to stall at the state level, we’ve had to move forward with a county-by-county, city-by-city piecemeal approach to try and protect as many people as possible.

If we enact a policy that encourages and supports those who are trying to quit, discourages children from ever starting, and protects those who choose not to smoke, we will make our community a healthier place to work and live.

Categories: Commentary

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