According to a local ABC News affiliate, public officials in Howard County (Maryland) will kill a proposed smoke-free bar and restaurant ordinance because they feel it would be unfair to local business owners who spent a substantial amount of money complying with a 1996 law that restricted smoking in bars and restaurants to enclosed, separately ventilated areas.
According to the article: "Three of the five Howard County Council members say they will vote no on a ban proposal that is scheduled for a vote next month. They say it would be unfair to businesses that already spent a lot of money to create separate smoking and non-smoking areas to comply with the current county law."
This is despite the offer of smoking ban supporters to allow a two-year grace period before business owners who had installed separately ventilated rooms would have to comply.
The Rest of the Story
I think there is an important lesson here for tobacco control practitioners. Getting a law passed for the sake of getting a law passed is not necessarily an advancement for the public's health. It could, as it has in this case, actually harm the protection of the public's health.
In 1996, Howard County enacted a law that banned smoking in bars and restaurants except for enclosed, separately ventilated areas in those establishments. In order to continue to allow smoking, a number of bar and restaurant owners apparently installed these areas, which can be tremendously expensive.
It only makes sense that public officials would view it as unfair to business owners who spent large amounts of money to comply with the previous law to now render their expenditures moot by disallowing those separately ventilated smoking areas.
While public health advocates in 1996 might have felt that a separately ventilated area law was better than no law at all and that it would advance the public's health, I tend to think they were wrong. It would have been better, I believe, to have no law at all than to essentially preclude the possibility of providing appropriate protection for all bar and restaurant workers from the hazards of secondhand smoke.
But here's why I think that the 1996 law (and all laws of this nature) was not just a strategically poor policy, but a bad public health policy as well. Such a law guarantees no worker protection from secondhand smoke. In fact, my research suggests that these policies greatly increase secondhand smoke exposure for those workers who do have to work in these separately ventilated areas.
Moreover, my research suggests that any positive effects of decreasing exposure for customers in the no-smoking areas are more than offset by negative effects of increasing exposure for workers in the smoking areas (see: Siegel M, Husten C, Merritt R, Giovino G, Eriksen M: The health effects of separately ventilated smoking lounges on smokers: Is this an appropriate public health policy? Tobacco Control 1995; 4:22-29).
When Georgia's smoke-free workplace law was enacted earlier this year, I criticized it sharply because I felt that there was no public health justification for a policy that, among other things, failed to guarantee public health protection for bar and restaurant workers by forcing many of them to work in areas with even higher concentrations of secondhand smoke. Frankly, I think it would have been far better to simply do nothing - concentrations of secondhand smoke in restaurants are far, far less than they are in separately ventilated smoking rooms.
My view of the Georgia law, and others like it: "I don't view this highly contrived patchwork of legislation that guarantees protection to not a single worker in the state of Georgia to be a public health measure."
I think that it's time for tobacco control advocates to either "put up or shut up," so to speak. If secondhand smoke is so hazardous that workers need to be protected from exposure, then all workers should be protected, period. If it is not that serious a hazard, then we shouldn't be imposing upon business owners.
Enacting policies that lack a public health justification does, in the long run, harm the protection of the public's health. And Howard County is a perfect demonstration of why.