Albany is well known for its overblown promises and rhetorical hype. Often newly passed laws are promoted as “historic” and criticisms of health reforms paint a picture of the end of civilization as we know it.
But sometimes Albany really does respond by tackling real problems, ignoring fantastic criticism and passing laws that make a difference. Such is the case with the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act.
On July 24, 2003, the Clean Indoor Air Act was enacted. The new law expanded the state’s restrictions on smoking in public and work places. Basically, the new law banned smoking in virtually all indoor areas, including restaurants and bars.
As the debate over the proposal was heating up, some tavern owners stated that the ban would put thousands of people out of work. Other critics scoffed at the notion that tobacco smoke harmed non-smokers. Still others complained of the “Nanny state” restricting the “rights” of smokers.
Such rhetoric ignored the overwhelming scientific evidence. Secondhand smoke is classified as a “known human carcinogen” (cancer-causing agent) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. National Toxicology Program, and the World Health Organization. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has stated that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.
Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemical compounds. More than 250 of these chemicals are known to be harmful, and at least 69 are known to cause cancer. Secondhand smoke has been linked to lung cancer. There is also some evidence suggesting it may be linked with childhood leukemia and cancers of the larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), brain, bladder, rectum, stomach and breast.
Each year 25,000 adults in New York State die from smoking and 389,000 kids now under 18 and alive in New York will ultimately die prematurely from smoking.
So, it is dangerous to be exposed to tobacco smoke. How has the law worked?
Here are some statistics:
· Over the past ten years, adult smoking declined from 22% to 17%.
· Over the past ten years, the percentage of adult smokers who attempted to quit jumped from 55% to 67%.
· According to the New York Health Department, the decline in smoking has reduced the number of heart attacks in the state by nearly 4,000 cases and saved nearly $60 million in health care costs.
· There has been 100 percent compliance with the law and there has been no negative impact on employment. But lives have been saved.
The passage of New York State’s Clean Indoor Air Act was an historic moment for public health. In 2002, the average New York bar or restaurant was essentially a hotbox of deadly carcinogens. For hospitality workers clocking an eight-hour shift, this was an incredibly dangerous situation. The Clean Indoor Air Act changed all that and undoubtedly has saved lives.
Despite the clear evidence of success, there are still pockets of problems. For example, smoking prevalence remains unchanged for African American and Hispanic adults. Also, there has been no decline in the smoking rate for people with low incomes, less than a high school education, and poorer mental health.
These health problems demand a public response. Unfortunately, over the past five years, state policymakers have embarked on a systematic effort to dismantle the state’s tobacco control program – just the program where the state can target resources at communities which have not benefitted from public health policy changes.
Instead of gutting the state’s tobacco control program, New York lawmakers should support legislation to restore previous years’ budget cuts to the state’s tobacco control program (Senate bill 5462/Assembly bill 7426). Failure to do so will lead to more illness and early death for current smokers who wish to quit, but don’t know how. And to help stop children from making a life-altering decision to light up tobacco.
Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.
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