Surgeon general report lights up smoking debateby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
A U.S. surgeon general's report released Tuesday is prompting renewed calls for a statewide smoking ban. The report concludes there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. It also says the only way to protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke is to eliminate smoking indoors.
St. Paul, Minn. — In his report, Surgeon General Richard Carmona says there is massive and conclusive evidence that secondhand smoke can cause a long list of ailments - including lung cancer, heart disease and sudden infant death syndrome.
Carmona notes even short-term exposure to secondhand smoke can harm the cardiovascular system. The surgeon general says evidence shows that separating smokers from non-smokers, cleaning the air and ventilating buildings cannot eliminate the exposure of non-smokers to secondhand smoke. He says the only way to fully protect non-smokers is to eliminate smoking in indoor spaces.
The report was immediately embraced by many public health advocates.
"For the Surgeon General to come out and say "no safe level" and "immediate adverse effects," those are strengthening boosters to the science that we knew was there all along," said Pat McKone, president-elect of the Minnesota Smoke-Free Coalition.
The report is an update to a 1986 Surgeon General's report that for the first time quantified the health risks posed to non-smokers exposed to tobacco smoke. In the 20 years since, the body of science research on secondhand smoke has grown significantly.
McKone says now there's much more information on the potential harm of short-term exposure.
"The first one talked more about long-term exposure," McKone said. "And I think it's only been in the last five years that we've really learned about those cardiac risks - that indeed as little as 30 minutes of exposure have adverse health effects on the heart. We did not know that 20 years ago."
McKone calls the findings a turning point in the battle against tobacco smoke. She hopes now it will be easier to convince lawmakers to pass a statewide smoking ban that applies to bars and restaurants. Fourteen other states have already passed similar measures. State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored a statewide smoking ban bill last year that failed to get enough support in the Legislature. But he's optimistic that the surgeon general's report has greatly improved his chances.
"We'll be well-poised next year to enact a statewide ban," Dibble said.
But Dibble says even without the backing of the surgeon general's report, momentum has been building in Minnesota for a statewide smoking ban. He credits already enacted smoking bans in several cities including Minneapolis and St. Paul for paving the way.
"We're certainly making progress at the local level," Dibble said. "We're certainly making progress in terms of public opinion. And we've certainly seen a lot of progress in terms of legislators themselves who have said they would vote for this."
But others aren't convinced a statewide smoking ban is a forgone conclusion.
Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, says he has no reason to doubt the Surgeon General's health-related findings. But he does disagree with a statement in the report that suggests that smoke-free laws don't harm businesses.
"The people that I represent, they've shown me their books and I can tell you, they're not lying," Farrell said.
Farrell thinks many lawmakers will remain unwilling to pass a statewide smoking ban out of concern for businesses in their districts. Instead, he predicts lawmakers will be more interested in working out a smoking ban compromise. He points to cities that have adopted partial bans that allow smoking in bars where more liquor is served than food. Or, he thinks lawmakers could look at models like the Saloon in Minneapolis. That business recently built a separate enclosed patio where patrons can smoke in comfort without exposing bar staff or other patrons to their cigarette fumes.
"That to me seems to be where the debate is headed," Farrell said. "And if public health folks oppose what the Saloon has or the idea of a smoking room like in Alberta, Canada then we're talking prohibition."
Farrell says his organization will continue pressing lawmakers to look for creative and fair solutions to the secondhand smoke debate. Public health advocates say they'll be just as busy making their case for a comprehensive statewide smoking ban.
- All Things Considered, 06/27/2006, 5:42 p.m.