Michigan recently took a strong step toward protecting our community’s health by making virtually all restaurants, bars, workplaces and public places smoke-free.

The governor signed the measure into law because it has been demonstrated, time and again, that smoke-free policies improve indoor air quality, protect the health of non-smokers, reduce emergency hospitalizations for heart attacks, decrease cigarette consumption, encourage smokers to quit and change social norms regarding the acceptability of smoking.

The facts supporting the adoption of such measures are stark. Worldwide, the tobacco epidemic killed 100 million people in the 20th century and is projected to kill one billion people worldwide in the 21st.

In the United States, smoking kills an estimated 443,000 people each year, with secondhand smoke responsible for 50,000 of those deaths, including 1,700 in Michigan. Approximately 8,600,000 people in the United States have chronic illnesses related to smoking.

And it’s no wonder why. Every billow of smoke from a cigarette contains hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, benzene and radioactive polonium 210, as well as dozens of other carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, substances. Additives used by the manufacturers certainly don’t help, but it is the tobacco itself that is responsible for most of the cancer-causing and toxic effects of cigarettes. In other words, using “organic” or “additive-free” tobacco doesn’t help.

Many people now know that both smoking and secondhand smoke exposure cause lung cancer and asthma attacks, but many are unaware that secondhand smoke, like direct smoking, also causes heart disease, acute respiratory infections, ear problems and sudden infant death syndrome, to name just a few concerns. They don’t know that tobacco use causes more deaths than HIV/AIDS, alcohol use, cocaine use, heroin use, homicides, suicides, motor vehicle crashes and fires — combined.

When it comes to secondhand smoke, some people incorrectly believe that opening a window, sitting in a separate area within the same airspace or using a fan protects bystanders from harm. However, a 2006 report by the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that there is no risk-free level of exposure. The only genuine protection is 100-percent smoke-free environments.

With passage of the new smoke-free law, Michigan has committed itself to saving lives and protecting its residents. Additionally, it joins the growing number of jurisdictions that have done so. As of the month of March, 24 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have enacted similarly comprehensive smoke-free laws. (An additional 14 states had adopted less comprehensive smoke-free laws that cover some venues.) Well over a dozen countries have also enacted strong smoke-free laws. Even Ireland eliminated smoking in all pubs with overwhelming public support several years ago.

The right not to be harmed by the conduct of others is deeply embedded in our culture and in our laws. By contrast, there is no state or federal constitutional right to smoke. As a civil libertarian, it is my personal belief that adults should have the right to make their own, informed decisions about their personal conduct. That prerogative does not extend to engaging in activities that place others at risk against their will, whether they are our friends, our fellow workers, our children or members of the public.

Most people these days are naturally concerned about the health impact of tobacco use, and 70 percent of smokers report that they want to quit. If you are one of them, low-cost (or free) assistance is immediately available. You can start by going to www.smokefree.gov, calling 1-800-QUITNOW (1-800-784-8669) or talking to your doctor.

Many years ago, I coordinated the national campaign for enactment of the law making all domestic commercial airline flights smoke-free. That law has been a huge, popular success for 20 years. Today, one can hardly imagine having to inhale the smoke of fellow passengers on a five-hour, transcontinental flight. I am confident that implementation of Michigan’s new law will be met with equal support and appreciation.

Cliff Douglas is the Director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network and an adjunct lecturer in tobacco policy at the School of Public Health.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.