(02/07/2005)

Posted sign on Grantsville business, some business owners
say proposed smoking ban will keep customers away

By Mathiew Richards

In the recent debates over smoking bans, whether tobacco is unhealthy or not is hardly ever debated.

Even smokers concede that tobacco use is unhealthy. The two usual arguments are: "If it's so bad why is it still legal?" and "Why is big brother forcing new laws on private business?"

I would like to address the second question first:

The ultimate mission of the local health department is to protect the health of its county residents. It is responsible for many duties related to public health. The Institute of Medicine interpreted public health as "what we as a society do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy. " (IOM 1988).

Public health professionals provide medical care for the indigent, immunizations for school children, food inspections, health education, water control, and health promotion activities such as promoting safer sex, healthier lifestyles, and improved eating habits.

Our legislature (elected officials) have given our Boards of Health the authority to perform their duties as was clarified by the West Virginia Supreme Court. (elected officials).

So the question is: "Is secondhand smoke a public health hazard?"

In 1992 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported, "exposure to tobacco smoke in the environment can cause lung cancer in adult nonsmokers." Exposure to secondhand smoke causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually among adult nonsmokers.

In 1997, the California EPA concluded that secondhand smoke causes coronary heart disease and death in nonsmokers. Scientific studies have estimated that second hand smoke accounts for as many as 62,000 deaths from coronary heart disease annually in the United States.

Opponents to smoking bans call this "junk science."

The EPA report also concluded that second hand smoke causes serious respiratory problems in children, such as greater number and severity of asthma attacks and lower respiratory tract infections. Secondhand smoke exposure increases children's risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and middle ear infections as well. Each year secondhand smoke causes 150,000-300,000 lower respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, in children.

Since secondhand smoke is a public health hazard it should be banned in all public places.

The Board of Health is an independent entity on purpose and it's not their job to make business economic decisions.

It's their job to protect the public.

Now for the first question, "If it's so bad why is it still legal?" I personally believe there are three reasons why it's still legal: addiction, public debt and apathy.

ADDICTION

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines addiction as a "compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful"

(1) Numbers: 27.4 percent (WV) of our adult population (that's 388,900) is addicted to this drug. Politicians are worried about re-elections. (2)Culture: Tobacco has been part of our culture since 1612 when John Rolfe planted the first successful tobacco crop. As a result, tobacco became a staple crop for the Virginia Colony. 392 years of product engineering using additives to facilitate and/or increase the addiction properties of nicotine. (3) Media: The average 14-year-old has been exposed to more than $20 billion in tobacco advertising and promotions since age 6. Promoting the "tobacco culture," from being rebellious to glamorous.

PUBLIC DEBT

(1) Revenues: Tobacco generated revenue for West Virginia in FY2004 was $158.70 million. How are legislatures going to pay for unfunded liabilities if we ask them to give up another $158.7 million in revenue? Of course, let's not consider the annual health care costs in West Virginia, which are directly caused by smoking ($539 million).

(2) Lobbying: A lobbyist is a person who tries to influence elected officials to take action, or non-action, favorable to his or her interests, beliefs, or clients. Black's Law Dictionary defines a lobbyist as "One who makes it a business to procure the passage of bills pending before a legislative body."

The tobacco industry spent $20 million to lobby the United States Congress in 2002. That amounts to a whopping $138,794 spent on lobbying for every day Congress was in session. That is on top of the $9 million Big Tobacco gave in political contributions during the 2002 election cycle and the $665,751 it contributed in the first six months of 2003. What do they tell our legislators? See #1 above.

APATHY

We as individuals too frequently choose the path of least resistance. We choose to stand by while others make our decisions for us. The tobacco addicts are more motivated than the non-users to protect their addiction (I believe that some users go into withdrawals at the mere mention of tobacco regulation) Here are the top three excuses I hear for not caring:

1. It's legal (Just because it's legal doesn't make it right) 2. It's a personal choice (Yes, but your choice stops at my and my children's nose) 3. They're not bothering me (The average West Virginian pays approximately $500 annually to support smoker's health care. It is bothering your pocket book)

In summary, it boils down to this: tobacco is legal because users need to feed their withdrawal symptoms. Tobacco is legal because 72 percent of our population in West Virginia doesn't care enough to be involved.

Tobacco is still legal because our politicians decide every year that it's worth losing 3,800 smokers and at least 310 non-smokers in exchange for $158.7 million annually.

Have you ever asked yourself how much a life is worth? Our politicians decide every year that in West Virginia a life is worth $386,131.39!

I friend of mine that was privy to the legislature doings during the special session, said that the reason they are diverting the Tobacco Master Settlement funding is that the legislators and the governor have to consider the greater good.

That greater good is not public health.

While we debate this question, it's estimated that 49,000 West Virginia kids under the age of 18 today will ultimately die prematurely from smoking.

But as we have already discussed our politicians and our nicotine addicts are willing to make that sacrifice. References:

http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/reports/settlements/state.php?StateID=WV

http://www.smokefreeoc.com/studies.htm

- Mathiew Richards,22, is a former Calhoun resident and former president of Calhoun High School's student organization S.C.A.T. He now resides in NC where he moved for employment and is currently engaged to be married, He said his concerns come from letters about meetings and media attention regarding tobacco use in public spaces.


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