In the Sept. 2006 issue of Community News, a Denver–area magazine, a reader wrote objecting to Colorado's new ban on smoking in almost all restaurants and bars, which took effect at midnight on June 30 of this year. The letter writer feels that she and other smokers are being "punished" by the new law. She says that she and her husband will no longer patronize restaurants where their "rights have been curtailed." She urges other Colorado smokers — who, she mistakenly believes, make up a "silent majority" — to vote for representatives who will listen to them - and then, she hopes, amend or repeal the law.
Her letter and the magazine editor's supportive reply prompted me to respond with this essay. In it, I cite facts and figures that I hope can help explain why this law is a good one.
I want to stress at the outset that I do not believe that smoking is "evil," or that it represents some sort of moral failure on the part of the smoker, any more than drinking too much alcohol or eating too much food or taking illegal drugs is "evil." Nor am I seeking to control the private behavior of anyone doing any of those things.
Instead, I mainly see all those habits as unwise and sad, given that their origins often have their roots in genetic predisposition and/or in how the people in question were raised. Perhaps the bad habits were started due to peer pressure (yes, there is such a thing) when the smokers or drinkers or overeaters or drug addicts were young and not very sure of themselves as individuals. Later, the habits proved extremely difficult to break.
I wish with all my heart that all of us could be wise and self–controlled enough to avoid these self–destructive habits in the first place. But such is not reality. Thus we have to work to find wise, compassionate, and effective ways of dealing with these habits and the enormous damage they cause.
I am very much in favor of any messages and methods and public health programs that will help people to change their unhealthy ways. For the vast majority of people who are on the wrong path health–wise, changing their ways first requires the sincere desire to change. After that must come a combination of things, none of them easy: removing oneself as far as possible from the unhealthy environment, getting outside help as needed, exercising consistent self–discipline, and trying hard to find a healthy habit to replace the bad one.
So, you might ask, if I feel sorry for the poor addicted smokers, why am I in favor of banning smoking in most public places? The answer is quite simple. For me, this is primarily a matter of protecting the health of the general public. The wisdom of not allowing smoking in public places &mash; schools, office buildings, department stores, grocery stores, theatres, churches, restaurants, or any other place where smokers and nonsmokers can be expected to mingle — is based on the proven fact that smokers harm not only themselves, but also those around them who are exposed to secondhand smoke.
A much–publicized 2006 Surgeon General's report, "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke," states flatly that "there is no risk–free level of exposure to secondhand smoke." It is this report, in which secondhand smoke is designated a "known human carcinogen" by the EPA, that has propelled many of the most recent bans on smoking in public places.
Secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 dangerous chemicals, including arsenic, formaldehyde, and lead (source: Wikipedia). It is only logical that we nonsmokers, who outnumber smokers four to one here in the US, should wish to be protected from possible exposure to these noxious chemicals when we are in public places.
Now, finally, we are getting the law on our side.
Please note that this essay will be significantly expanded sometime in the near future, after I've had time to do more research. Specifically, I plan to add information concerning how harmful maternal smoking and secondhand smoke are to children; how much harm women who smoke are doing themselves; and why so many other cities, states, and even other countries are now enacting indoor smoking bans. I will also add all the URLs for the sources cited below.
I find it strange and sad that the angry letter writer and her husband now plan to deprive themselves of eating out once or twice a week. Have they also stopped shopping at the mall, or going to movies or plays or concerts, or attending lectures or church services, or taking classes in public institutions, or going to the airport and then boarding an airplane? All such places, as well as the vast majority of workplaces here in the US, banned smoking long ago for very good reasons of public health. Yet lo and behold! People still go to work, the movies, church, the mall, schools, airports, etc. Most of them have obviously adjusted pretty well to the restrictions on smoking. So why does the writer think that she won't be able to adjust equally well to a ban on restaurant smoking?
After all, she and her husband are still free to smoke as much as they like in their home and car before they arrive at the restaurant, as well as to smoke as much as they like immediately afterwards, away from the restaurant. Are they so addicted to nicotine that they truly can't refrain from having a cigarette for an hour or two? I sincerely hope not.
Please don't think that I don't know what it's like to have to do without something I enjoy. Over my six decades of life, I've had to give up lots of things: numerous foods high in cholesterol, alcohol, almost all chocolate, and now coffee, which worsens my glaucoma. In addition, I've had to give up various sports activities that I loved. (I detail all this in my nonfiction book, Another Chance at Life: A Breast Cancer Survivor's Journey.) However, I gradually adjusted to every necessary change and still found plenty in life to enjoy.
Likewise, I predict that the writer of the letter, along with all the other Colorado smokers who wish the new law had not been passed, will adjust in time and will resume eating out as often as they did before. The restaurant owners and we nonsmokers will welcome them back.
Another personal note: Our son grew up with nonsmoking parents who always preached to him about the dangers of tobacco. Daniel received an excellent medical education and served eight years in the Air Force as an emergency medical specialist. Yet he has been smoking for almost 20 years, since the age of 18, and seems to have no intention of quitting anytime soon. Daniel loves going out to eat, and we love going out to eat with him. He simply smokes before and after eating — outside the restaurant, of course, and well away from us. In short, he has adjusted as necessary.
Now to some facts and figures, which I hope will help explain why this new Colorado law is a good one.
The angry letter writer believes that "a lot more people over 50 smoke than do not smoke." Sorry, ma'am, but the statistics say otherwise.
Therefore, it is plain that the letter writer and her husband are in fact in a distinct minority as regards their smoking habits. And the majority of people prefer, logically enough, to breathe smoke–free air.
Why have so many people, in Colorado and otherwise, come to believe that restricting smoking in public places makes good sense? Perhaps it's because they have begun to educate themselves regarding the appalling statistics of deaths due to smoking, both active and passive, and they want to protect themselves and others.
In the March 10, 2004 issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, there was a long report entitled "Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000." The surprising figures are:
Please put this in your pipe and smoke it, dear reader. 435,000 American deaths every year from smoking is equivalent to a new Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy occurring every two and a half days, year in, year out. Yet no foreign or domestic terrorists are causing these deaths. They are all self–inflicted.
The above numbers must make any thinking person question the logic of our nation's drug laws. Why are a few drugs illegal and their use severely prosecuted, while nicotine, which kills 25 times as many people as all illegal drugs put together, is legal, with few restrictions placed upon its sale? Perhaps it's at least partly because so many of the country's lawmakers and law enforcers are themselves addicted to tobacco — or, in the case of the lawmakers, addicted to the money from Big Tobacco: Phillip Morris USA Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., to name four of the largest US producers.
People have widely varying opinions as to whether nicotine, alcohol, and the drugs that are currently illegal should be legal or not. But given the number of people who die each year from smoking–related causes, any logical person has to wonder why our government is not spending at least as much money on educating the public as to the dangers of tobacco and on helping people to quit smoking as it is on finding, prosecuting, and incarcerating the sellers and users of illegal drugs. It would surely be money well spent, resulting in much improved public health and in huge reductions in nationwide health care costs.
The statistics on how much harm smoking does should be particularly sobering for women.
But what predominantly female cancer gets all the attention, all the heartfelt emotional support and money–raising walks and runs? Breast cancer, of course. Perhaps that's at least partly because the causes of breast cancer, as they were in my own case, remain largely mysterious. It's easy to feel sorry for a victim of breast cancer, and pretty heartless to blame the victim.
Meanwhile, 90% of the almost twice as many cases of lung cancer are brought on women by themselves, via their addiction to tobacco. And all women have to do in order to virtually eliminate their risk of contracting lung cancer is to quit smoking. That is much easier said than done, as millions of smokers will testify. However, it's a plain and incontrovertible fact — and not at all as sexy, if you'll pardon the pun, as discussions of breasts and their mysterious diseases and possible cures for those diseases. Hence the near invisibility of lung cancer in women compared to breast cancer, at least when it comes to public perception and support for programs to help combat the two diseases. Again, I consider this a tragic skewing of our national priorities.
Now back to the dangers of secondhand smoke, the belated recognition of which is behind the new push to ban smoking in public places, with the laudable goal of protecting the health of all.
The CDC reports that secondhand smoke, which restaurant patrons and workers breathe if smoking is allowed in those establishments, causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths and about 35,000 to 40,000 deaths from heart disease each year in the US in otherwise healthy nonsmokers.
Even smokers who work in bars can appreciate the reduced risk to their own health once smoking is banned in their workplaces. On July 2, 2006, TheDenverChannel.com published an article entitled "State is 13th in Nation to Prohibit Smoking in Bars, Restaurants, Workplaces." (See, Colorado is not alone!) They quote Zane Kessler, a smoker who works at Denver's Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant. Mr. Kessler is "glad his nights of coming home from work with bloodshot eyes and reeking clothes [are] over." Mr. Kessler's own words: "You can come home, you don't smell. It's such a benefit health wise. It's a definite benefit for everyone."
The same DenverChannel article says that with the smoking ban having started, the Colorado Quitline has been "inundated with calls from people who want to try to stop smoking." (Other sources I have read say that at least 85% of smokers would like to quit. They merely find it very hard to do so, and thus often need outside help.) Colorado Quitline has hired 15 part–time counselors to help support people trying to quit smoking.
The above supports something else that I have read many times: that smoking bans, along with higher cigarette taxes, greatly encourage smokers to quit smoking. And that benefits everyone except the cigarette companies.
More from the same article: "The [Colorado] State Health Dept. has distributed more than 28,000 free nicotine patch kits since December 2005. They are paid for with a $6 million stop–smoking budget that comes from a $25 million allocation for all anti–smoking programs in the state. Colorado is one of the first states to offer such a patch."
Good for Colorado! May all other states in the US follow our example in the future.
Okay, okay, many smokers say. We know that smoking is bad for our health. But doesn't banning smoking in restaurants hurt business? What about the health of our ailing economy?
There too, current statistics tell an encouraging story, not a discouraging one. To read 10 pages of fully documented information, go to Wikipedia ("the free encyclopedia"), and type in "Smoking ban." There you can read how banning smoking in restaurants and other public places helps protect the health of workers and others, reduces health care and insurance costs, makes communities more attractive to new businesses and workers, and reduces fire risk and cleaning costs. The important conclusion is that "research generally indicates that business incomes are stable (or even improved) after smoking bans are enacted."
Of course there are exceptions. Some few businesses see their incomes reduced once smoking bans are enacted, or the owners are even forced out of business. That's very sad, and I wish all those business owners good luck in finding a satisfactory alternative source of income. But the overall trend, as is made quite clear by worldwide statistics, is one of improved business once smoking bans are enacted. That is what has led even large hotel chains, such as Westin and all its subsidiaries, to go entirely smoke–free worldwide. This was done in response to overwhelming requests from their guests.
The bottom line for Westin, as well as for the majority of restaurant owners in places where indoor smoking has been banned, is that while some few smokers might be unhappy with the new restrictions, many more people are delighted with the changes, and are inclined to eat out and travel more often. Now, wherever smoking bans are enacted, even the most smoke–sensitive people can dine out and sleep in hotels and motels in much greater comfort and safety.
More words in support of Colorado's new law: In a short article entitled "Colo. Adopts Smokefree Bill" on the website of Join Together (www.jointogether.org, March 21, 2006), House Minority Leader Mike May is quoted as follows: "[The bill] is a great step forward. It's good for our economy, it's good for the workers, and it's good for Colorado."
So, I think we can conclude that smoking bans in public places are much more likely to increase rather than decrease in coming years.
This leaves smokers three choices:
There are many ways to go about the difficult task of quitting. Among them are going cold turkey (hard but quick), cutting back very gradually (sensible and not too terribly tough), using the nicotine patch, and trying things like hypnotherapy or acupuncture. Professional help is also available all over the country; for example, in Idaho you can consult this list of Idaho addiction treatment resources.
I hope this article helped, too. Feel free to e–mail me any comments.