Thursday, March 12, 2009

Virginia Democrats Should Be Ashamed for Using their Support for an Unjustified Smoking Ban in Political Attacks Against Republican Opponents

According to an article in Tuesday's Washington Post, Democratic political leaders in Virginia are using their support for a recently-enacted law that restricts smoking in bars and restaurants in an attack on Republican opponents who they say failed to support the measure because of their ties to Philip Morris, which is based in Richmond.

Earlier this week, Democratic Governor Timothy Kaine signed into law a bill that prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants, except for designated smoking rooms that are separately ventilated to prevent smoke from entering nonsmoking areas. The bill was a result of a compromise between health groups, which wanted a complete ban on smoking, and political leaders, who would have preferred less stringent legislation.

As a result of the deal, bar and restaurant owners who wish to allow smoking in their establishments must construct separately ventilated rooms. This is a very expensive proposition, because it requires not only enclosing an area of the establishment with walls, but also ventilating that room directly to the outside.

According to the article, Democratic leaders are using their support for this deal in attacks on Republican political opponents, arguing that those Republicans failed to support this "common sense" legislation because of their ties to Philip Morris:

"As Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was signing into law a bill that prohibits smoking in many of the state's restaurants and bars, Democrats were already turning the issue into fodder for a political attack on Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell and his ties to big tobacco. Democrats accused McDonnell of fighting the restaurant smoking ban at the behest of Altria Group, the world's largest cigarette manufacturer. McDonnell was Virginia's top recipient of campaign contributions and gifts in 2008 from Richmond-based Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA. He received $35,000 in donations and $6,532 in gifts, according to the Virginia Public Access Project."

"'All three Democratic candidates for governor stood with Virginians in support of this common-sense legislation,'' said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. 'But Bob McDonnell chose special interests over the health of Virginians.'"...

"'Knowing that workers in restaurants that allow smoking are twice as likely to develop lung cancer, this new law is a real victory for public health,' said Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), who introduced the governor's original smoking ban bill this year."

The Rest of the Story

Health Canada has provided a formula to calculate the costs to bar and restaurant owners of constructing and operating a separately ventilated smoking room. The following is taken from the Heath Canada web site:

"The increased cost of a smoking area is divided into two items: the cost of constructing and operating a separately ventilated smoking area; and the cost of cleaning and maintaining the smoking area.

a) Capital and Operating Costs for a Separately Ventilated Smoking Area

The formula for calculating the annual cost of constructing and operating a separately ventilated smoking area is:



  • COSTROOM = annual cost of constructing and operating a separately ventilated smoking area (dollars per employee)
  • CAPITAL = capital cost of constructing a separately ventilated smoking area (dollars)
  • SMOKERS = maximum number of smoking employees accommodated by the smoking area (number of employees)
  • AMORTIZATION = the amortization period for the smoking area (years)
  • OPERATING = the annual cost of operating the smoking area expressed as a percentage of the initial capital cost (ratio)

b) Cost of Cleaning and Maintaining the Smoking Area

The formula for calculating the annual cost of cleaning and maintaining the separately ventilated smoking area is:



  • COSTCLEANING = annual cost of cleaning and maintaining a smoking area (dollars per employee)
  • DAILY = time spent cleaning ashtrays in the smoking area each day (minutes)
  • WEEKLY = time spent cleaning the smoking area each week (minutes)
  • MINUTES = number of minutes in an hour (60 minutes)
  • WORKDAYS = number of working days per year (days)
  • WAGEJANITOR = the average wage for janitorial employees (dollars per hour)
  • SMOKERS = number of smoking employees accommodated by the smoking area (number of employees)
  • BENEFITS = benefits paid by the employer on behalf of the employee (ratio)"
While Health Canada does not provide actual estimates of these costs, anyone familiar with the costs of construction and ventilation knows that they are extremely high. And especially in these difficult economic times, requiring business owners to spend these vast amounts of money simply to allow smoking in their establishments is an extraordinary intervention and intrusion.

That intrusion might be justified if it were going to result in a substantial saving of lives and improvement of the public's health. However, there is solid evidence to indicate that separately ventilated smoking room policies not only fail to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure but also substantially increase exposure for the workers who do work in those designated smoking areas.

Designated smoking areas, even if separately ventilated, have been shown not to protect nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke in practice because smoke readily escapes from the designated smoking rooms into the nonsmoking areas. And in the smoking areas themselves, tobacco smoke exposure is astronomically higher due to the heavy concentration of smokers. Workers in those areas suffer greatly increased exposure to secondhand smoke.

For a detailed analysis of the effects of separately ventilated smoking rooms, see this article: Siegel M, Husten C, Merritt RK, Giovino GA, Eriksen M. Effects of separately ventilated smoking lounges on the health of smokers: is this an appropriate public health policy? Tobacco Control 1995; 4:22-29.

In fact, there is strong evidence that restricting smoking to designated areas actually results in a net increase in health effects: while workers in the nonsmoking areas have less exposure, the increased exposure for workers in the smoking areas far more than offsets those gains.

So the Democratic leaders are wrong in asserting that this law is a "real victory for public health." It most certainly is not. Frankly, it is a public health disaster, because it is going to make exposure much worse for employees who work in the designated smoking areas. Not only will the policy fail to save lives, but it may actually cost lives because it will create a situation where some employees are exposed to extremely high levels of secondhand smoke.

There is strong reason to believe that if you aren't going to prohibit smoking outright in bars and restaurants, the health of employees is best served by not restricting smoking to certain areas. Why? Because if smoking is spread out throughout the establishment, all workers are exposed to modest levels of secondhand smoke. But if you restrict smoking to a single enclosed area, then while some employees see decreased exposure, others see a tremendous concentration of carcinogens in their work area.

Not only does this policy fail to protect the public's health, but it does so at a tremendous cost: employers will be "wasting" millions of dollars on expensive alterations to their restaurants with absolutely no public health benefit.

The law, rather than being a common sense policy that is a victory for public health, is an unduly intrusive and unwarranted intervention into how business owners run their establishments, without any public health benefit and with the risk of actually harming the public's health.

Democratic leaders should be ashamed of themselves for supporting such a policy, for pretending that such a policy is a victory for public health, for claiming that such a policy represents a common sense solution to a public health problem, and most importantly, for using this in completely unjustified political attacks against their opponents.

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