Friday, January 06, 2006

IN MY VIEW: D.C. and New Jersey Smoking Laws Reveal Lack of Integrity of Policy Makers

The two recent decisions in New Jersey and the District of Columbia about how to handle the difficult issue of regulating secondhand smoke exposure in service workplaces (bars, restaurants, casinos, etc.) have revealed to me an alarming lack of integrity on the part of policy makers.

In New Jersey, for example, Assembly Health Committee vice chairman Herb Conaway, a physician, was quoted as stating that the benefits and savings from reducing exposure to secondhand smoke "far outweigh" the costs to businesses. Well, if the benefits from reducing exposure to secondhand smoke far outweigh the costs, then there seems to be no public health justification for exempting casinos from the smoking ban. If one accepts Conaway's basic premise, then the failure of policy makers (and I would add, some health advocates) in New Jersey to demand the protection of the state's 48,000 casino workers must be viewed as irresponsible and inappropriate public policy.

In the District of Columbia, lawmakers claimed to be acting in the interest of regulating a severe health hazard, but what they actually did was relinquish all control over this hazard to the whim of bar and restaurant owners, who are being incentivized to enter the tobacco sales business, which is their option if they wish to avoid having to eliminate smoking in their establishments.

To me, this demonstrates a lack of integrity on the part of these policy makers, and in some cases, public health groups that are supporting this legislation.

Why do I say this?

Mainly because these lawmakers and public health groups have not had the honesty or forthrightness to simply admit that they are making political compromises that have no public health justification. Instead, they continue to spout propaganda about how bad secondhand smoke is and how important it is to protect all workers from this hazard and how it will not hurt businesses. Well, if that's the case, then what is the justification for exempting casinos or bars or restaurants that sell cigarettes?

In the case of the casino exemption, it's a clear case of cowing to the political interests of the casino lobby. And if lawmakers would simply admit that, I'd have a lot more respect for them. But don't pretend to be a friend to the public's health and vote to sentence 48,000 casino workers to what you yourself admit are severe health hazards associated with secondhand smoke exposure.

And while health advocates are not directly to blame because they are not the ones who are calling for the exemptions, I still think they bear some of the blame for the failure to achieve consistent policies because they are failing to demand protection for all workers. In other words, they have ended up advocating a position that is inconsistent with the propaganda they have been putting forth.

Again, if they simply admitted that they are doing this because they are cowing down to the powerful casino lobby, then fine. At least, they're being honest and telling the truth. But they also have another option, which is standing up to the casino lobby. And they have specifically chosen not to do that. They're welcome to make such a decision if they wish, but don't try to hide what you're doing - just face up to it.

In all, this has been a disturbing week, I think, for secondhand smoke policy efforts in the nation because it has become clear that few are willing to take a position and stick with it based on principle. The lone exception is Carol Schwartz of the D.C. City Council, who has taken a strong position against the ban and voted in a manner consistent with her talk.

If you want to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. And right now, I see a lot of talking out of policy makers and health groups, but not a lot of walking.

No comments: