In 1995, California passed a law banning smoking in public places such as bars and restaurants. Because it was the first law of its kind, California lawmakers gave the state's dining and drinking establishments an exemption of three years before the ban would be enforced. On January 1, 1998, when the law went into effect, nobody paid much attention -- patrons continued to smoke inside, and officials did not do much about it.
Then, slowly, signs were posted, fines were handed out to both the establishment owners and patrons, and smokers moved outdoors. Soon, more towns and counties began banning smoking in restaurants, bars, and other social areas.
In 2002 Delaware became the second state to pass a comprehensive antismoking law, and it was quickly followed by the cities of New York and Boston. Antismoking laws are becoming increasingly popular; it appears to be only a matter of time before they are the norm, not the exception.
Still, smoking bans remain highly controversial because some restaurant and bar owners claim the laws significantly affect their financial bottom lines. But before we delve into that debate, let's look at the health benefits of smoking bans.
The Health Benefits of Smoking Bans
Soon after New York passed its antismoking legislation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a scientific study of the air quality in 20 of the city's hospitality venues to see if the ban had had a positive effect on air quality. Not surprisingly, they found that it had.
Using a standard measure called respirable suspended particles, or RSPs, the researchers found that the levels of harmful compounds in the air dropped by 84 percent. But this finding wasn't startling -- obviously, if people stop smoking, there will be fewer pollutants in the air. So the real question is: How does this translate into a healthier population?
A 2003 study from the University of California, San Francisco found that the number of heart attack victims admitted to a local hospital dropped nearly 60 percent during the first six months after a smoke-free ordinance was passed in the area. Another study focused on bar workers in the San Francisco area. The data showed roughly the same drop-off in reported respiratory problems and in nose, eye, and throat irritation. Furthermore, there was a four percent increase in lung capacity among bar workers tested after just four weeks of the antismoking policy.
In 2004, Ireland became one of the few countries to pass a nationwide ban on smoking in public places. Naturally, then, Ireland became a veritable Petri dish for researchers who wanted to study the effects of antismoking laws. The following year, British Medical Journal published a comprehensive study documenting the health changes in Ireland due to the lack of secondhand smoke. The researchers found that the number of nonsmoking bar workers with respiratory problems dropped 17 percent and that their cotinine levels dropped 80 percent.
Although it shouldn't come as a surprise, smoking bans clearly have had major health benefits wherever the laws have been enacted. No research, however, has demonstrated that antismoking laws have encouraged smokers to quit or even light up less frequently.
The Economic Effects of Smoking Bans
This is a highly politicized issue. There are numerous studies stating that sales in the impacted establishments plummet after smoking laws are passed; other studies, however, claim that sales remain stable or even increase. It is not as easy to quantify restaurant and bar sales as it is to measure chemical compounds in the air. Therefore, it is difficult to know which side is right.
After El Paso, Texas, passed a nonsmoking ordinance in 2002, the Texas Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed sales-tax and beverage-tax data from the year of the ban and the 12 years prior. The report states that there was no statistically significant change in revenue after the smoking ban took place.
Naturally, many bar and restaurant owners make the opposite claim. The Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., reported that one local tavern suffered a drop in revenue of almost $10,000 in the year after St. Paul's smoking ban went into effect. Meanwhile, the famous brewer Guinness claims its sales have fallen six percent since Ireland's antismoking laws were passed.
Although it may be impossible to know the whole truth regarding the economic impact of smoking bans, the health benefits are indisputable. And while some protest that the bans should not be used to persecute smokers, others counter that governments have a responsibility to protect the health of the nonsmoking population.
The recent report from the Surgeon General may not have been "breaking news." However, sometimes it takes the words of a prominent public figure to help us see the unpleasant reality that is wafting through the air all around us.
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