Last Sunday, I went to see a friend’s band perform at BAR, one of my favorite local hangouts. A few hours after I returned home, the ringing in my ears had subsided, but the stench of cigarette smoke stayed on my clothes for days.
Although many of us have accepted that going out for a drink or to a show means having to smell like an ashtray afterwards, this doesn’t have to be the case. Cities across the country have begun to ban smoking in all public establishments. Just last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg approved one of the nation’s toughest anti-smoking measures, outlawing smoking in virtually every restaurant and bar in the city. Despite this progress, New Haven and Connecticut have done little to combat the serious health threat of secondhand smoke.
Each year, over 50,000 Americans die from the smoke they inhale from other people’s cigarettes. Secondhand smoke has been shown to contain over 4,000 chemicals, 43 of which are known carcinogens (including cyanide and arsenic). Therefore, it’s not surprising that studies by the New York Health Department demonstrate that the air quality in an average bar is worse than that of the Holland Tunnel at rush hour. And customers aren’t the only ones who suffer. Bar employees have a 50 percent higher rate of cancer than the general public.
Statistics like these have driven cities from Honolulu to Boston to ban lighting up indoors, yet you are unlikely to see the smoke clear from Rudy’s anytime soon. Part of the problem is that Connecticut, bowing to pressure from the tobacco lobby, has become the only New England state to deny its cities and towns the authority to regulate smoking in public establishments. As a result, each business has been left in charge of deciding for itself whether or not to go smoke-free.
So far, few establishments have made the change. Many owners fear that banning smoking will lead to a dramatic loss of business. However, over 100 studies have shown that such bans do not hurt sales. In fact, they lead to increased revenue in most cases. This makes sense if one considers that over the past 35 years, nonsmokers have gone from a 35 percent minority to a 75 percent majority in this country. Many of those who had been avoiding smoky bars and restaurants for health or comfort reasons have started to return. And the staff is benefiting as well. There has been a 60 percent reduction in lung ailments among bar employees in California since a total smoking ban went into effect there five years ago.
Still, Connecticut proprietors say it is their right to fill their businesses with smoke if they want to. In the absence of state regulation, there is little protection for those of us who want to paint the town red without painting our lungs black.
Connecticut’s lack of action on this issue reflects a larger problem of how the state has dealt with the risks of smoking in general. This month, the American Lung Association graded states on their anti-tobacco initiatives. In addition to receiving an “F” for its dearth of smoke-free public establishments, Connecticut ranked last in all New England states for its funding of smoking prevention and cessation programs. Of the $534 million the state has received from tobacco lawsuits, less than $8 million has been spent on such programs. In addition, Governor Roland has proposed shutting down the Connecticut Quitline, a telephone service designed to help smokers give up the habit.
This lack of focus on smoking related health issues is clearly not in line with public opinion. A recent survey of Connecticut voters indicates that residents here believe that the protection of the public from secondhand smoke is as important an issue as education, health care and the economy. Moreover, a vast majority of voters support local authority over smoking bans.
It’s time for Connecticut to stop lending an ear to the tobacco lobby and to start lending a hand to its people. Even if the state is unwilling to pass a blanket anti-smoking ban, it should at least let its cities and towns decide for themselves. As patrons, we shouldn’t have to choose between our recreation and our health. And we should be able to separate our taste in music from the taste of ash in our mouths.
David Grimm is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.