Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Georgia Governor Considering Whether to Sign Workplace Smoking Bill

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has until May 10 to decide whether or not to sign the Georgia Smokefree Air Act of 2005, which was passed by the legislature. The bill would eliminate smoking in workplaces, including restaurants, with some exceptions. The bill is widely supported by public health groups, which are lobbying the Governor to sign this legislation. The Georgia Alliance for Tobacco Prevention touts the passage of this legislation as being a "success."

The Rest of the Story

What may not be clear to casual observers of this debate in Georgia is that the "few exceptions" in the bill are so large that they create a loophole that essentially negates the very purpose of the bill.

First, all bars are exempt, assuming that they do not allow or employ youths, which is most likely already the case. So while the legislature apparently feels that restaurant workers are deserving of protection from secondhand smoke, for some reason bar workers are not. So much for a level playing field by which all establishments would be subjected to the same health requirements.

Second, any restaurant that chooses to cater to adults only (and not to employ youths) is also exempt. While many restaurants will certainly choose to continue as family-oriented establishments, many will not. So the legislature is basically establishing a two-tiered hospitality industry in Georgia, whereby restaurants will basically be divided into family-oriented and adult-only establishments.

What kind of absurd public health message is this legislation sending? Secondhand smoke is such a problem that the government must intervene to ban smoking in all workplaces and restaurants, but it is not so great a problem that it needs to protect bar workers or to protect workers in adult-oriented establishments, just workers in family-oriented ones?

To make matters much worse, the bill also allows smoking in enclosed, separately ventilated rooms in restaurants, even ones that are family-oriented. OK - so the logic here is getting even more convoluted: secondhand smoke is so bad that it is not acceptable to allow smoking in family-oriented restaurants, but it is somehow acceptable to allow smoking in adult-oriented restaurants and even in family-oriented restaurants, so long as the smoke is confined to certain areas so that exposure will be heavily concentrated among employees working in those areas with little exposure among workers in other areas.That makes a lot of public health sense to me!

While I don't necessarily blame the legislature for this mess, since this kind of reasoning seems to be common among elected officials, I do not find it acceptable for public health organizations to be supporting such a ludicrous approach to the protection of workers from secondhand smoke.

Either secondhand smoke is or it is not a substantial occupational health hazard. If it is, then all establishments should be treated equally and a level playing field should be created so that all workers can breathe clean air. If it is not, then the government should not be intervening to such a degree that it is basically telling private establishments that they need to declare themselves as family-oriented or adult-oriented, and there are no other choices for how they are free to market themselves.

I certainly hope that Governor Perdue has the wise sense to see how absurd this approach to regulating a health hazard is, and that he chooses to veto the legislation. There is simply no public health rationale for supporting such an inconsistent approach to the regulation of what is being purported to be a substantial occupational health hazard.

(May 9, 2005; 11:15 pm): Governor Perdue today signed the legislation into law. I think this is quite unfortunate, and is going to substantially set back public health efforts not only in Georgia, but elsewhere in the country as well. It is truly an embarrassment for public health.

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