Smoking Bans Work

Saturday, October 14, 2006

SINCE MARCH, something has been missing from Scotland's venerable pubs: choking gray clouds of smoke. This week, only seven months after Scotland's smoking ban for bars and clubs took effect, a team of scientists at Dundee University announced that the measure has drastically improved the health of bar employees. The incidence of smoking-related ailments in bar staff decreased from 80 percent to under 50 percent in two months. Employees also had lower levels of nicotine in their blood, and their lungs got markedly healthier.

After even one case such as Scotland's, you would think responsible American leaders would push for smoking bans here -- or at least not block them when they are proposed. But Washington-area residents need only look as far as Annapolis and Richmond, where bills to forbid smoking in public workplaces failed this year, to find just the opposite: harmful political opposition to smoking bans tinged with knee-jerk rhetoric and a paucity of facts.

The science is clear. In Ireland, where critics insisted a smoking ban would be unenforceable, a highly successful two-year-old prohibition has improved the health of bartenders, encouraged addicts to quit and earned the support of about 80 percent of smokers in the country. On this side of the Atlantic, a landmark surgeon general's report released this summer detailed not only the health benefits of smoking bans in the United States but also the inadequacy of half-measures favored by the hospitality industry and its supporters. The study concluded, for example, that ventilation systems designed to separate the air that circulates in smoking and nonsmoking areas of bars and restaurants do not protect customers from secondhand exposure.

To counter these findings, many bar and restaurant owners claim that forcing smokers to light up outside will hurt business. But the surgeon general's report indicates that bans actually increase patronage. Other critics of smoking prohibitions like to confuse a straightforward question of public health policy with issues of deprived liberty. A spokesperson for Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. claimed this year that the law proposed for the state would have infringed "upon the personal choices of the people of Maryland."

Yet the freedom to light up anywhere you please is not so sacred that bartenders and bar patrons alike must tolerate chronic ailments to protect it.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company