editorial (2007-01)

Smoking May Become a Burning Issue

Indoor smoking in the workplace should be prohibited statewide

Smoking May Become a Burning Issue

After years of turning back anti-smoking legislation, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a milestone law last session prohibiting smoking in state buildings. That was a highly significant reversal for the previously all-powerful tobacco and farm lobbies, but a lot of work remains before Tennesseans can hope to secure the same smoke-free environment in their workplaces that lawmakers now enjoy in their chambers and offices and hallways.

This could be the year, if anti-smoking groups are successful in their efforts to influence the legislators toward the realization that secondhand smoke, as well as smoking, kills. It helps that the U.S. Surgeon General has reported that secondhand smoke is deadly, but the Legislature has had a record of turning a deaf ear to such information in the past.

Still on the books, for instance, is a 1994 law prohibiting local governments from regulating smoking in any but public buildings, severely limiting communities from protecting the health of their own people. An effort to strike that law from the books failed just three years ago. If the push toward a general workplace smoking ban should fail, at least the Legislature should re-empower localities to make their own decisions in the matter. Gov. Phil Bredesen is on record as favoring smoking limitation, so it is up to the General Assembly to fall in line with his recommendations and with public opinion. Nearly three-quarters of Tennessee residents polled on the subject are favorable to a workplace ban.

Twenty states now have some form of indoor-smoking limitation. Hawaii, dependent to a significant degree on tourism by the free-smoking Japanese, wrestled with a ban, but invoked one, as did Arkansas this last year. Other tobacco-producing states, such as Kentucky, allow for local governments to impose smoking restrictions, and Lexington’s program resulted in a decrease of smoking by about a third in the city in the first year it went into effect.

Tobacco production is on the wane in Tennessee, and the lobby that supported both production and consumption of tobacco products is likewise losing strength.

The thoughtless use of tobacco settlement money—$265 million per year in recent years—for general state purposes rather than for anti-smoking education or specific health-care purposes has left Tennessee among the highest smoking states. It ranks more than five points above the national average of 20.9 percent smokers.  The state’s general health index is 47th among the 50 states, and Tennessee’s health-care costs directly attributable to smoking run into tens of millions of dollars annually, not counting the effects of secondhand smoke.

East Tennessee and the Knoxville area, particularly, suffers in that regard, as air quality from all pollution sources has us placed at or near the top of listings on vulnerability to asthma and lung diseases.

It would be great if more employers and places open to the public, such as restaurants and bars, instituted and enforced their own smoking bans. Many of them are doing so, piecemeal, without reporting declines in productivity or business. Some restaurants that have eliminated smoking altogether inside their establishments have recorded increased business from people seeking to eat where the stench of tobacco smoke is totally absent.

Sevier County’s Dollywood, a mecca for blue-collar visitors and tourists, has quietly posted nearly every outdoor site on its grounds with prominent no-smoking signs, and its business is flourishing despite its removal of the ashtrays that once were kept around its leisure benches.

Once the Legislature lifts its prohibition on local government restrictions, we should be able to look forward to generalized workplace smoking limitations from Knoxville and Knox County governments, even if convincing the City Council and County Commission membership of that need may take some persuading.

If a hotbed of smoking such as Ireland can ban indoor smoking nationally, and France, of all places, can consider it, the United States can’t be too far behind, even if it is left up to the individual states and their political subdivisions to enact such restrictions.

Public sentiment has reached a proportion that fairly dictates that legislative bodies take action to protect the pubic environment from tobacco smoke in the interests of a surveyed majority and their offspring.

If 2007 does not unfold as the year the Tennessee General Assembly produces a statewide band on workplace smoking, voters should be disappointed and take a hard look at the votes of their senators and representatives. If those lawmakers continue to deny localities the right to determine their own smoking preferences, those who help sustain that ban or look the other way should be relieved of their legislative responsibilities at the next election .