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Whose rights should we fight for in smoking ban campaign?


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Whose rights should we fight for in smoking ban campaign?

J. MICHAEL GONZALEZ-CAMPOY

The debate over secondhand smoke and the Freedom to Breathe Act, which has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature, is indeed a debate about personal rights (Craig Westover's column Jan. 26). But exactly whose rights should we be fighting for?

In thousands of Minnesota bars and restaurants, employees and customers are exposed to more than 4,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke. At least 11 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. What is the justification for not protecting workers and patrons from these dangers?

The debate over secondhand smoke brings to mind the famous 1994 news photo of the country's top tobacco company executives, standing with right hands raised, swearing to tell the truth in testimony to Congress. The photo was taken just before they testified that smoking did not cause cancer. A decade later, even the tobacco companies admit that cigarette smoking kills.

No doubt there will be a similar turning of the tide on the issue of secondhand smoke. The scientific evidence is overwhelming — secondhand smoke is one of the country's leading causes of preventable death. It has been linked to diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease and asthma.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to cite just one example — has gone so far as to warn people who have heart disease, or are at risk for heart disease, to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke because less than 30 minutes of exposure can trigger a significant heart event.

But how long must workers keep waiting for public policy to catch up with science? Minnesota workers have every right to an environment that will not seriously damage their health. So do customers in bars and restaurants. The Freedom to Breathe Act would protect that right.

Throughout history, the health of workers and the public has been a high priority. In 1970 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created to protect workers. In 1975 Minnesota passed the Clean Indoor Air Act to protect office workers from secondhand smoke.

Do bar and restaurant workers and customers deserve less protection than office workers? Do they have fewer rights to a safe environment?

Experience shows that smoke-free policies protect our health. Studies of Delaware's hospitality venues before and after a smoke-free law showed that the levels of airborne cancer-causing substances decreased by at least 90 percent. The result is healthier workers and customers, and that translates into lower health care bills and fewer employee absences because of smoke-related illness.

Experience shows that most consumers support smoke-free policies. In New York City, restaurant and bar tax receipts increased 12 percent following the enactment of a smoke-free indoor air law. After passage of the Indoor Air Act in California, bar and restaurant sales increased from $8.64 billion to $11.30 billion from 1997 to 2002.

And right here at home, 93 percent of Minnesotans who participated in the 2003 Minnesota adult Tobacco Survey said they would eat out more often or the same amount if there were a total restaurant smoking ban.

In the coming months, we owe it to ourselves to fully consider the health impact of the Freedom to Breathe Act. Some will argue that the generally low-wage workers in the hospitality industry really have "freedom of choice" to change jobs in order to protect their health. Others will debate that.

But the science of secondhand smoke is beyond debate. Secondhand smoke harms everyone who breathes it. The Freedom to Breathe Act would grant Minnesota bar and restaurant workers and patrons the same right to a healthy environment that we already guarantee to white-collar office workers. Only clear indoor air will protect a person's lungs and heart.

Gonzalez-Campoy of Sunfish Lake is president of the Minnesota Medical Association.

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Very interesting. Good read. Your right two sides to every story, then some where in between lies the truth. People don't like change, regardless if it is in ones best interest or others. Does not seem logical that second hand smoke does not affect some people, especially children nor does it seem unreasonable that people cannot smoke in public places. It's a very serious problem (smoking and the ripple affect from it) in this country for sure, regardless of where one stands on the issue. Rich

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