Thursday, November 17, 2005

Georgia Smokefree Air Act Rules Go Into Effect Today: Poor Excuse for a Public Health Law

Rules to implement Georgia's Smokefree Air Act of 2005 went into effect today, timed to coincide with the Great American Smoke-Out. While the law itself took effect on July 1, release of the rules to guide the law's implementation were delayed because of the need to figure out how to deal with the ban's exemptions: most importantly, whether restaurants that decide to allow smoking by declaring themselves as adult-only establishments need to disallow minors at all times or only when smoking is allowed (the decision was to force them not to allow minors at any time).

According to Stuart T. Brown, M.D., director of the Georgia Division of Public Health: "This new law is important because it reduces the risk of chronic disease and illness associated with exposure to secondhand smoke, and it provides an opportunity for DHR to educate the public about what the law requires and why it is important. ... By prohibiting smoking and preventing secondhand smoke exposure in public places, we can begin to reduce the numbers of tobacco related deaths in Georgia each year, which number more than 11,000."”

The Rest of the Story

I don't view Georgia's Smokefree Air Act of 2005 as a public health law, nor do I even view it as a "Smokefree Air" act. It might more appropriately be called the "Smoke-Filled Air Act of 2005."

Rather than allow restaurant workers in the state to work under conditions where the average nicotine levels are about 6.5 ug/m3, the new law requires restaurant owners who wish to allow smoking (and aren't inclined to ban kids from their establishments) to force employees to work under conditions where the nicotine levels are more in the range of about 70 ug/m3 (see: Siegel M, Husten C, Merritt R, Giovino G, Eriksen M: The health effects of separately ventilated smoking lounges on smokers: Is this an appropriate public health policy? Tobacco Control 1995; 4:22-29).

I don't see how that policy in any way "is important because it reduces the risk of chronic disease and illness associated with exposure to secondhand smoke" or how it in any way prevents "secondhand smoke exposure in public places."

Actually, the policy will increase secondhand smoke exposure and likely, chronic disease among restaurant workers who are unfortunate enough to have to work in these carcinogen-laden smoking areas.

In essence, the Georgia Smoke-Filled Air Act of 2005 guarantees protection from secondhand smoke to not a single bar or restaurant worker in the state of Georgia. It simply puts their secondhand smoke exposure at the whim of their employer:
  • If the employer decides to go smoke-free, then they will be treated to smoke-free working conditions.
  • If the employer decides to go adult-only, then they will be treated to smoke-heavy working conditions.
  • And if the employer decides not to go adult-only but still wants to allow smoking, then those workers will be treated to smoke-filled working conditions.
Essentially, what this law does is simply to force restaurant employers to decide the business category and smoke-exposure category they wish to be in: smoke-free, smoke-heavy, or smoke-filled.

This is not a public health law - it's an arbitrary and capricious intervention into the way that restaurant owners operate their business establishments, and I think it's devoid of any public health justification.

Not only that, but I think it's a disaster for sincere efforts to protect workers from secondhand smoke in this country. Because what it does is set a destructive precedent - one that is sure to be followed by other states and localities. Even several localities within Georgia have apparently weakened their health protections for restaurant workers in order to not be in conflict with this exemption-filled state law.

The precedent is destructive not only because it fails to guarantee any worker protection from secondhand smoke - the alleged hazard here - but because it frames the issue as one of customer protection, and one of youth customer protection at that.

If the state of Georgia was truly interested in reducing chronic disease by preventing secondhand smoke exposure and it truly believed that secondhand smoke exposure was a substantial threat to its workers, then what possible sense does it make to only regulate this hazard insofar as youth customers are concerned. When you look at it, youth customers are guaranteed protection by this law, but adult customers and workers are not.

How could secondhand smoke be a substantial hazard for youth restaurant patrons, but not for adult patrons or bar or restaurant employees? There's just no scientific basis for making such an arbitrary distinction. Secondhand smoke doesn't make a distinction in exposing kids versus adults, or customers versus workers. Neither should a public health-motivated law.

I think that there is something other than a true concern for the public's health that must be motivating this law. In my opinion, it's an attempt to make it look like the state is doing something to address the problem, but to avoid having to actually make the difficult decisions necessary if you actually want to provide protection to the workers in your state.

I realize that some public health advocates in Georgia would likely argue that this law is not perfect, but that it is a step in the right direction. I disagree. I think it's a step in the wrong direction.

If a law isn't justified on public health grounds, then I think it should simply not have been enacted in the first place. Irrational public policy is not a step in the right direction. It is a step down the path to creating a huge public backlash against even legitimate attempts to protect people's health.

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