Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States and in Oklahoma.
But hidden within that well-known statistic is a remarkable, less publicized figure: Secondhand smoke contributes to the death of some 41,000 nonsmokers every year.
That’s not a mistake. They don’t smoke, but smoking is killing them.
For every eight smokers who die from smoking-related disease in Oklahoma, one nonsmoker dies from the same disease, The Oklahoman’s K.S. McNutt reported last week.
Secondhand smoke kills.
And where do nonsmoking Oklahoma adults end up breathing in so much of other people’s fumes? On the job.
Let’s review the facts about secondhand smoke from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
• Secondhand smoke causes stroke, lung cancer and coronary heart disease in adults. Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke are at increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, middle ear disease, more severe asthma, respiratory symptoms and slowed lung growth.
• Secondhand smoke contains hundreds of chemicals known to cause cancer or to be toxic, including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide. Concentrations of cancer-causing and toxic chemicals are higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.
• Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of heart disease by 25% to 30%. Their risk of developing cancer goes up 20% to 30%.
• There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Breathing secondhand smoke for even a short time interferes with the normal operations of the heart, blood and vascular systems in ways that increase the risk of heart attack.
• The only effective way to eliminate exposure is to guarantee smoke-free environments. Separate smoking areas, air cleaners and ventilation accommodations do not eliminate exposure for the people who work around smoke.
It’s time for Oklahoma to get serious about guaranteeing a smoke-free workplace.
If the state won’t do it, it should, at the very least, allow local governments to protect the health of their citizens.
House Bill 2288, introduced last year by state Rep. Harold Wright, would prohibit smoking in enclosed public places and recreational areas; vehicles owned or operated by the state, cities or counties; places of employment; and certain facilities and outdoor public places.
Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C., have banned smoking in private workplaces; 32 states and Washington have banned smoking in restaurants.
HB 2288 also allows city and county governments to adopt smoking rules that are more restrictive than state law.
That last part would seem like a no-brainer, but twice during the Mary Fallin administration, efforts to remove the state pre-emption rule were summarily rejected by the Legislature. Fallin didn’t lose many issues with the Legislature, and those defeats came despite her repeated, personal efforts. Fallin’s parents smoked and died of smoking-related diseases.
HB 2288 made it through a House committee test last year, and it remains viable next year.
The Wellness Coalition — 300 members and partners —will be lobbying for Wright’s bill. There’s some reason for hope for the coalition’s success. In the past, the tobacco industry could unleash its army of well-connected lobbyists and bottle up antismoking bills early in the legislative process, but in a big battle last year, the best they could do was reduce a proposed $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax to $1 a pack.
Well, that’s not quite all they’ve done. They’ve also successfully kept all of the state’s tobacco taxes from applying to the cigarette’s addictive little brother, the e-cigarette. And, at least so far, they’ve prevented local governments from making rational, local rules to protect nonsmokers.
This is a class issue.
The big white collar employers banned smoking in the office years ago. Even Reynolds American — maker of Camel and Pall Mall cigarettes — won’t let you smoke at your desk.
But the CDC reports that blue collar and service employees are less likely than white collar indoor workers to be covered by smoke-free policies.
And restaurant workers are far less likely to have necessary protections from passive exposure to tobacco’s carcinogens.
Smokers would never think about lighting up in their mother’s house or in a friend’s car, but they’ll blow smoke in the face of an uninsured, $10.41-an-hour stranger on the other side of the bar.
It’s also a generational issue.
One in five restaurant workers is a teenager.
Smokers like to argue that they aren’t hurting anyone but themselves. Smoking is, they say, a highly taxed, personal choice to use a legal product. That’s true, so long as they keep their smoke to themselves.
The old story goes, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.
So too, your right to smoke a cigarette ends where my nose begins.
Mayor G.T. Bynum speaks during the 1921 Mass Graves Public Oversight Meeting.