Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Repeating the Same Mistake Twice? Indianapolis Smoking Policy May Spread

An article from yesterday's WNDU (South Bend, IN) web site indicates that St. Joseph County in Indiana is poised to repeat Indianapolis' recent mistake of enacting a law claiming that secondhand smoke is a severe health hazard but then regulating that hazard only insofar as it may affect youth customers to food service establishments. According to the article, health advocates in St. Joseph County are "drafting a similar ordinance to the one that just passed in Indianapolis," and "The ordinance should be introduced in St. Joseph County some time over the summer, and if passed, it would mandate all family dining restaurants to go smoke free. However, bars that don't allow minors will be excluded."

The Rest of the Story

It is always possible that a news reporter is simply wrong. However, if this story is indeed correct, it seems to suggest that health advocates in St. Joseph County may actually be drafting a law that applies only to family dining restaurants and not to establishments that serve alcohol and allow only adult customers.

While health advocates that support a law that protects all workers from secondhand smoke may not be to blame if politicians amend such a proposal to exempt certain establishments, it would hardly seem appropriate for health advocates to be proposing exemptions that create an absence of any guaranteed protection for food service workers and which only guarantee protection for youth customers at such establishments.

If secondhand smoke is as severe a hazard as advocates are suggesting, then it makes little sense to respond solely by aiming to prevent kids from being exposed for the short time they are present in restaurants. Would it not make more sense to respond by aiming to prevent exposure among workers, who may be exposed for 8 or more hours per day and for whom the health effects of secondhand smoke exposure have been documented? And if the political climate is simply not conducive to eliminating smoking in free-standing bars, then why not at least eliminate smoking in all restaurants, regardless of whether they serve adults or youths? What is the possible public health justification for applying a law to prevent a health hazard based solely on the age of the clientele of a particular establishment?

This story seems to confirm my earlier prediction that the "youth-only" protection approach taken in Georgia and in Indianapolis is going to spread like wildfire. Once politicians see a way that they can appease public health advocates without having to take the bold step of actually guaranteeing protection for food service workers, they are quite likely to take the easy road.

The most troubling aspect of the story, however, is the possibility that health advocates are actually the ones promoting such an approach, before politicians even have the opportunity to weaken the proposed policy.

Policy approaches to public health issues, especially approaches to the problem of smoking in bars and restaurants, have a way of carrying momentum that tends to diffuse quickly. This is why a mistake in one area can have negative repercussions that are observed widely, perhaps even throughout the country. And that is exactly why I am questioning these seemingly inconsistent approaches to the problem now.

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