Viewpoint: Why does Michigan empower smokers to harm the people we love?

BY MICHAEL P. O'DONNELL

Published March 9, 2015

I love the University of Michigan. I am proud to be a graduate and a faculty member. I respect the school’s leadership and admire the integrity it brings to decision-making. But I do not understand why Michigan has a smoking policy that empowers smokers to assault the people I love. The statistics are compelling; each year, secondhand smoke kills nearly three times the number killed by violent crime in the United States. I need your help changing the University’s policy.

Michigan’s smoking policy is well intentioned. It was developed through an inclusive and thoughtful process that involved input from students, faculty and staff, representing many of the schools across campus. The concept of an almost smoke-free campus was bold and pioneering when the policy was developed. However, today, smoke-free campuses are common, with 1,514 as of Jan. 1, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation; many of them have more comprehensive policies than Michigan.

Michigan’s policy has one fatal (literally) flaw. It allows smoking on the miles of sidewalks adjacent to the streets that snake through and frame our campus, the sidewalks we all use to enter and roam the campus, arguably the most densely populated parts of campus.

On a typical walk from my office on East Huron to any place on campus, I have to walk through four groups of smokers. When possible, I suspend breathing and accelerate my pace, allowing me to dash through the smoke and avoid being forced to draw the toxins into my lungs. I resent being imposed upon in this way, but I can live with it (I hope). However, I worry about people who cannot — people who cannot suspend breathing or accelerate their pace. I worry about people in wheelchairs, people with asthma, emphysema or heart disease, conditions that can provoke an immediate severe reaction to a tiny amount of secondhand smoke. I worry about infants in their mothers’ arms because their delicate lungs can be harmed by this exposure.

Smokers are not bad people. Harming others is the last thing they would ever want to do. Most do realize their secondhand smoke is disgusting, but they figure it just goes up in the air. So what’s the big deal?

When smokers spew their secondhand smoke into the air, it is the only circumstance in which people are unwillingly exposed to a known Class A carcinogen and the perpetrators are not committing a federal crime punishable by severe penalties. Breath per breath, secondhand smoke may actually be more dangerous than direct smoke because it’s generated at lower temperatures, is produced in an oxygen-deficient environment and is rapidly diluted and cooled after leaving the burning tobacco. These conditions favor formation of smaller particulates in secondhand smoke (ranging from 0.01 to 0.1 µm in diameter) than in mainstream smoke (ranging from 0.1 to 1 µm), and small particles have greater killing power because they can penetrate directly into the blood through the lungs. Secondhand smoke also typically contains higher concentrations of ammonia (40- to 170-fold), nitrogen oxides (4- to 10-fold) and chemical carcinogens (e.g., benzene, 10-fold; N-nitrosamines, 6- to 100-fold; and aniline, 30-fold) than mainstream smoke.

The impact is powerful and immediate. For the period 1965–2009, secondhand smoke killed an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States, and it still kills an estimated 41,280 every year (down from more than 81,000 in 1965 when more people smoked and fewer smoke-free policies were in place). On average, every 25 smokers kill one innocent person over a lifetime. For every person who dies, 10 more get sick, some of them with debilitating conditions. The Surgeon General concluded there is no safe level of secondhand smoke, so if you smell smoke, you are being assaulted. In fact, emerging research at the University of Oklahoma is finding that the extract from just one puff of secondhand smoke can cause DNA damage.

College students who smoke are the unknowing victims of nicotine. They start smoking with their smoker friends, still think of themselves as non-smokers, fully intending to quit when they graduate, only to discover they are indeed addicted and cannot quit. A smoke-free campus helps them quit because it is harder to find a place to feed their addiction. National studies show three out of four smokers want to quit, and half try every year, but only two to four percent are successful.

What can we do about this? Change the policy. We can protect the people we love, people who are the most vulnerable, and we can eliminate this assault on each of us through a simple change in policy. If you know someone who has heart disease, respiratory problems, is in a wheelchair, or is vulnerable to secondhand smoke for any reason, please let me know and I will work with them to change this policy even faster. Their support will make the difference.

Michael P. O’Donnell is a Clinical Professor in the School Kinesiology and the director of the Health Management Research Center. He can be reached at modpop@umich.edu.

Revision: A previous version of this article indicated that secondhand smoke exposes people to "Group A" carcinogens. Secondhand smoke actually exposes others to "Class A" carcinogens.