Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Policy Makers Respond to Concerns About Hazards of Touching Chairs in Restaurants

In response to the public warning issued recently by a prominent tobacco control researcher about the health hazards associated with touching chairs, city councils are beginning to take action to protect the health of the public.

According to Dr. Jonathan Samet, who is director of the USC Institute for Global Health and a member of TPSAC as well as a senior scientific editor of several U.S. Surgeon General's reports, touching a chair in a room where vaping has occurred could be a health hazard, as the nicotine in exhaled air from a vaper could contaminate the chair and the nicotine could then be absorbed through the skin if someone touches the chair.

According to an article in the Pasadena Star-News, Dr. Samet was quoted as stating: "There have been two reasons to handle e-cigs the same as combustible products. People would be exposed to the nicotine in the air, so the vapor could settle on people. It could contaminate the air that they breathe. It could contaminate a chair, and they could touch it and nicotine can go through the skin."

Alarmed by the danger to the public posed by finger or hand contact with chairs, the Farmville Town Council last night considered an ordinance which would require 75% of seating in all restaurants to be chair-free. As an initial attempt to protect the public from this newly recognized health hazard, town selectmen voted to exempt bars from the ordinance. However, all restaurants and other food service establishments that derive no more than 50% of their revenues from alcohol would be subject to the proposed law.

While the ordinance requires a second reading before it becomes law, the initial 8-1 vote of the council suggests that the chances of adoption are high.

The ordinance requires that 75% of the seating capacity of all restaurants be free of chairs that contain any type of upholstery that can absorb nicotine. Specifically, the proposed ordinance bans chairs covered with the following materials: cotton, cotton blend, wool, linen, silk, nylon, polyester, rayon, and olefin. Allowed chair coverings are: wood, leather, acrylic, and acetate. Wooden chairs, benches, and booths are fully allowed in the 75% restricted seating areas.

Reaction to the proposed ordinance was generally positive.

Joe Greene, the owner of the Emerald Valley Grille, was ecstatic about the proposal. "We are basically a pizza joint, and all of our existing seating consists of wooden benches," Greene said. "We wouldn't have to make any changes to comply with this law and if they decide to extend it in the future to a 100% ban, we are poised and ready to go. We won't have to spend a penny to be in full compliance."

All three Japanese restaurants in Farmville were pleased with the ordinance, as they offer traditional Japanese seating with no chairs. Customers sit on pillows on the floor, so no costs will be incurred by these establishments to comply with the ordinance.

One business owner who was not pleased with the proposal was Mary Redford of the Lighthouse Cove Steak House. She complained that "we just spent $30,000 to re-upholster all of our chairs and now we find out that it is all for nothing." Redford urged the council to consider a grandfather clause or an economic hardship exemption, but councilmembers did not appear to be sympathetic to her position.

"This is a serious public health issue," said Health Committee chair Dr. Joseph Timilty. "According to a most reputable source - a senior scientific editor of the esteemed Surgeon General's report on smoking - use of electronic cigarettes in restaurants contaminates the air with high levels of nicotine which settles on chair upholstery and then gets absorbed through the skin if someone touches the chair. It only takes 60 milligrams of nicotine to kill someone and even less for a child. We just can't take chances."

Dr. Timilty's views were shared by several other councilmembers, including Rose Schafer, a respiratory therapist at the Sweet Acres Hospital. Schafer stated that "nicotine on chair upholstery combines with chemicals in the air to form carcinogens and we know that there is no safe level of exposure to carcinogens." Schafer cited recent research out of UC Riverside showing that absorbing chemicals from upholstery can be more hazardous than smoking.

One Farmville resident who testified against the ordinance was Jonathan Schiff, owner of Home Farm Custom Upholstery, who expressed concern that he could go out of business if this ordinance is enacted. He was followed, however, by Joe Smith of Celestial Pastures Woodworking, who admitted that he stands to gain financially as restaurants re-outfit their seating to comply with the ordinance.

Susan Jefferson, president of a new group that calls itself "Citizens to Preserve our Freedom," argued that restaurant customers already have a choice. "Anyone who wants to avoid contact with an upholstered chair can easily do so. Why intrude upon the rights of the rest of us?" she asked the council.

Jefferson's testimony was attacked by councilmember Stu Peters, who claimed that "Citizens to Preserve our Freedom" is actually a front group funded almost entirely by the Upholstery Fabric Foundation, a trade association dominated by companies that produce chair fabrics, including brocade, chenille, chintz, cotton, crewel, damask, flame stitch, gingham, linen, mohare, silk, toile, velvet, and wool.

The second reading of the ordinance, and a final vote, will occur next Thursday at the Enchanted Glen Community Center.

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