Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Sad Day for Clean Indoor Air in Indiana

The Indianapolis City Council last night approved a measure that will ban smoking in restaurants, except for those establishments which decide not to serve youths (under age 18). Bars are also excluded from the ban, as long as they serve only adults. The measure represents a compromise from an earlier and stronger ordinance that did not include the exemption for adult-only establishments, but did not have enough support to pass the Council. Public health groups apparently supported the amended ordinance and celebrated its passage.

The Rest of the Story

I don't see much to celebrate here; in fact, I think there is reason for grave concern among public health advocates in Indiana and nationally. This measure makes no advances in occupational health protection for bar and restaurant workers in Indiana, and does not even really improve public health protection for restaurant patrons.

Think of it this way: Prior to the ordinance, customers could choose whether they wanted to go out to eat at a smoke-free restaurant or not. Their choice of establishments was dictated by the decision of the establishments about whether to allow smoking or not. After the ordinance, customers will still be able to choose whether they want to go out to eat at a smoke-free restaurant or not. Their choice of establishments will be dictated by the decision of the establishments about whether to allow children or not. Thus, the ordinance does not guarantee any improvement in protection from the alleged hazards of secondhand smoke; in fact, if enough restaurants choose to become adult-only establishments, the number of smoke-free restaurants in Indianapolis could actually decrease. I don't think it will - but that's not the point. The point is that the law itself offers no public health protection for restaurant patrons. I do not think it is justified on a public health basis.

What about restaurant workers? Prior to the ordinance, workers had no choice whether they would be protected from secondhand smoke exposure on the job. Their exposure was determined by the decision of their restaurant's management. After the ordinance, workers will still have no choice whether they will be protected from secondhand smoke on the job. Their exposure will still be determined by the decision of their restaurant's management. The bill clearly offers no guarantee of protection for restaurant workers, and for those who are unfortunate enough to work in adult-only establishments, levels of carcinogens in their work environments will likely increase, as smokers shift over to frequent these establishments more often. The ordinance clearly has no public health justification on occupational health grounds.

So the rest of the story reveals that what we actually have here is a measure enacted in the name of protecting the public's health which has no public health justification, which offers no guaranteed public health protection to anyone - customers or workers - and which will likely result in markedly increased exposure to secondhand smoke for a large group of workers: those employed in establishments that are, or decide to become, adult-only restaurants or bars.

Even worse, the fact that the largest city in Indiana has now passed such a measure will serve as a model and a precedent for other communities in Indiana (and throughout the country) to follow. Now, politicians throughout the state know that you can please public health advocates in Indiana by just making sure kids are not exposed to secondhand smoke in restaurants. There is no need to feel any political pressure to protect people from secondhand smoke.

This completely undermines the national clean indoor air movement, by framing secondhand smoke as a hazard only insofar as it potentially affects the health and/or comfort of kids. Adult exposure is apparently not a problem or at least not enough of a problem that public health practitioners insist that something be done about it. By inference, I guess the health hazards of secondhand smoke must not be too severe. Otherwise, one wouldn't expect public health advocates to be treating this only as a kids issue. And it certainly is no longer going to be viewed as an issue of occupational health, since workers are completely left out of the scope of health protection. In fact, the situation will likely become much worse for a sizable proportion of Indianapolis bar and restaurant workers.

The legacy of Georgia's SB90 has officially begun. Whether the Georgia compromise had any effect on lawmakers in Indianapolis I don't know. But in any case, the combination of these two precedent-setting moves is sure to persuade policy makers in other cities and states that protecting kids is good enough for the anti-smoking groups. The clean indoor air movement in this country has suffered two devastating blows.

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