In a recent study, Alabama Department of Public Health staff and local coalition volunteers measured the air quality in restaurants and bars in seven Alabama communities. This study found that, in those tested bars and restaurants that allowed smoking, workers were exposed to air pollution levels up to 55 times higher than smoke-free restaurants and bars in the same city. The unhealthy amounts of pollution are far above the safe annual level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Secondhand smoke contains at least 250 chemicals that are known to be toxic and cause cancer. Breathing secondhand smoke boosts nonsmokers’ risk for heart problems, and even relatively brief exposure can potentially lead to a heart attack. A 2009 report from the Institute of Medicine said smoke-free ordinances are effective at reducing the risk of heart attacks and heart disease associated with exposure to secondhand smoke.
In these difficult economic times, people may be concerned about the impact smoke-free policies have on businesses. A recent study of Alabama and eight other states conducted by an independent, nonprofit institute reinforced the findings of previous studies, which have shown that smoke-free laws do not have a negative economic impact on restaurants and bars.
Many cities and towns in Alabama have passed comprehensive ordinances to protect workers. I commend the city councils of Anniston, Satsuma and Troy for recently enacting policies that protect all workers from secondhand smoke. In fact, 25 cities in Alabama protect their workers from secondhand smoke. Studies show more than 78 percent of Alabamians favor smoke-free workplaces, and more city councils are considering the issue.
According to a 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, a smoke-free environment is the only way to protect nonsmokers from the dangers of secondhand smoke. Separating smokers from nonsmokers and ventilating buildings does not eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke. Not allowing smoking indoors could save as many as 820 Alabamians who die every year as a result of someone else’s smoke.
As state health officer, I applaud the progress that has been made in reducing exposure to secondhand smoke and encourage communities to continue to expand protections to nonsmokers.
Donald E. Williamson is the state health officer for Alabama.