Friday, January 27, 2006

New Jersey Smoking Ban Exemption for Casinos Setting Precedent for Irrational Public Health Policy

I have been criticized by many tobacco control advocates for speaking out against the support of some New Jersey health groups for legislation that banned smoking in all workplaces, except for those which employ the state's 48,000 casino workers. I have suggested that these policies seem inconsistent and somewhat irrational from a public health perspective because if it is true that secondhand smoke is such a severe occupational hazard that the government has to intervene into business to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, then isn't it also a significant enough hazard to warrant eliminating smoking in casinos as well?

One effect that this type of action by tobacco control groups has, I think, is to destroy the appropriate framing of the issue of secondhand smoke as being an occupational health hazard from which workers require protection. Once you start supporting legislation that exempts certain groups of employees for political and/or economic reasons, then you are basically eroding the concept that secondhand smoke is a severe enough hazard to warrant the protection of all workers. And if it is not that severe, then why intervene to protect certain groups of workers?

The bottom line is that I think public health groups' support for these irrational exemptions is going to hurt, not help, the effort to protect workers from secondhand smoke because it destroys the consistency of our position on this issue.

The Rest of the Story

An article in yesterday's Rocky Mountain News reports that some lawmakers in Colorado are now insisting on an exemption in the proposed state ban on smoking in workplaces so that smoking can be allowed in the state's casinos.

According to the article: "A lawmaker who represents Cripple Creek and its 19 casinos says he can't support a workplace smoking ban unless gamblers get to light up. Rep. Jim Sullivan, R-Larkspur, said he will try to amend the bill to exempt casinos and racetracks when it is heard in committee Monday. 'The people that are gamblers are smokers,' he said Wednesday. The proposed 'Colorado Clean Indoor Act' bans smoking in virtually all workplaces, including bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and office buildings. House Bill 1175 by Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, currently offers only a few exemptions, including the smoking lounge at Denver International Airport and cigar bars. May said he would consider the casino exemption but will fight excluding racetracks."

There's little question in my mind that seeing what happened in New Jersey did influence what is going on in Colorado. The actions of smoke-free advocates in one state do affect what happens with smoke-free policies nationally.

But I think the impact is due not only to the precedent set by exempting casinos, but even more, to endorsing the idea that an inconsistent public health policy is somehow appropriate.

I think that public health groups should either resolve the inconsistencies in their positions, or at very least, publicly admit that their positions are inconsistent, and they are inconsistent for purely political reasons, not public health reasons.

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