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Positive signs for public health

By Chris Fitzsimon

It’s already a sure thing that the 2009 session of the General Assembly will be remembered for the $4 billion budget shortfall lawmakers faced, the largest in the state’s history. If recent events are any indication, the session may also be remembered for the important steps lawmakers took to improve public health.

A House committee approved a statewide smoking ban Tuesday that will protect workers and the public from the documented dangers of secondhand smoke in bars, restaurants and worksites.

A similar effort by House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman fell a few votes short last session, but its prospects appear much brighter this year. Tuesday’s committee vote came after the consideration of proposals to create exemptions from the ban, both of which were withdrawn before a vote was taken.

Last year, opponents of the ban managed to mislead several legislators into considering the issue a question of property rights for business owners who they say government should leave alone. That’s not working so well this year, as most lawmakers realize that government already enforces important health and safety regulations on private businesses.

House Minority Leader Paul Stam tried a different approach Tuesday, parsing words in the 2006 surgeon general’s report that declared the debate was over and the science clear that there is no risk-free exposure to secondhand smoke.

Stam said the report’s executive summary emphasized the dangers of secondhand smoke indoors, not in all workplaces. But he neglected to tell the committee that the surgeon general himself called for a smoking ban when the report was released.

Stam then tried to change the subject, saying it all came down to risk assessment and that there is an inherent risk in many things, citing his own breakfast of bacon and eggs as an example.

But the smoking ban isn’t about an adult who smokes or eats a fatty breakfast. It is about the people who don’t and are still subjected to the adverse health effects of secondhand smoke at their worksites or other public places.

Nobody else is immediately at risk from Stam’s breakfast choices. There is no secondhand bacon problem.

The illogic of the argument reflects the desperation of the smoking ban’s opponents in the face of growing legislative support for smoke-free workplaces.

Pam Seamans with the N.C. Alliance for Health says the bill saves the state money in health care costs, but, more importantly, saves lives.

That’s also why health advocates strongly support Gov. Beverly Perdue’s call for a dollar increase in the state cigarette tax. While it may not be progressive tax policy, there is a mountain of evidence that the increase will decrease smoking, particularly among teenagers, the group most critical to the tobacco companies’ future profits.

The vast majority of adult smokers started when they were teens, a cycle the tobacco industry needs to continue.

Holliman’s smoking ban still must clear the full House and then the Senate, and there are reports that some lawmakers are balking at the size of Perdue’s increase in the tobacco tax. But they are balking at the amount, not the increase itself, another indicator of how much things have changed.

The General Assembly has a chance this year to protect hundreds of thousands of people from the deadly effects of secondhand smoke and to make it more likely that teenagers will stop smoking or never start in the first place.

Those would be public health milestones to make this session one to remember indeed.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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