ANR UPDATE, 33(3), Fall 2014

 

Successes & Challenges: Getting over the 50% Hump

As we reach the midpoint of this year, it's interesting to reflect back not only on these last six months but also on the last six years in terms of our progress toward a smokefree society. We continue to pass 100% smokefree workplace, restaurant, and bar laws in many small cities in southern states and in the Midwest. Despite this wonderful, steady progress at the local level, it has been two years since the passage of a statewide smokefree law by ballot in North Dakota, and four years since legislators in Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota, and Wisconsin enacted smokefree laws. More recently, legislators in Alaska watered down a strong 100% smokefree proposal and in Kentucky, legislators blocked voting on a good smokefree bill where, not so coincidentally, tobacco giant Altria is the biggest lobbyist. Despite the mountains of scientific evidence on the negative health effects of secondhand smoke exposure and the overwhelming public support for smokefree air, many state legislatures are still unwilling to address the issue, primarily because of ongoing interference from the tobacco industry and its allies.

Why the stalemate?
That's the million dollar question. We have always faced stiff opposition from politicians, based on campaign contributions by the tobacco industry and its allies. But it would appear that those opposition forces are now stronger than ever, and with the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other front groups opposing any and all commonsense public health laws, we face almost insurmountable barriers.

How do we overcome this opposition?
We need to get back to basics. We heard stories of "Twitter bombing" of City Councilmembers in Los Angeles and Chicago during their hearings to determine if electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) should be included in their smokefree laws. While this might sound like a positive development, when ANR went to Los Angeles to meet with councilmembers in person, they said they weren't sure that all of the tweets and emails were from real people in their city. They told us that whether or not they agreed with our position, they much preferred to have a face-to-face conversation with an actual person.

We need to take that sentiment to heart. We need to personalize our message and make our concerns real to our elected officials. We also need to attend a City Council meeting before a proposed tobacco law has a hearing so as to be part of the process, to see how the Council operates, notice who has the power, and prepare for our hearing when the time comes. We need to learn how to counter our opponents. They tell lies, they spread misinformation, and they have people outside of the community send emails and tweets. They fight dirty. While we don't need to emulate this bad behavior, we do need to be bold. We need to hold elected officials accountable and let them know that they can either protect their constituents from secondhand smoke or accept tobacco industry money; they can't do both. And we simply need to fight harder. We need to keep the public in the fight and keep the fight public.

Some people may feel that the problem has been solved. The good news is that almost 49% of the U.S. population is protected by a 100% smoke-free workplace, restaurant, and bar law. But more than 50% of the population is not protected and almost 90% of casino employees still work in smoke-filled casinos. No matter how one feels about gambling, casinos are now a top employer in many states, as well as in Native American tribes, and both their workers and patrons are exposed to extremely high levels of secondhand smoke.

In many ways, the introduction of e-cigarettes has helped to awaken the general public to the dangers of secondhand smoke, and to reinvigorate the movement. People in smokefree communities who thought the job was done began to see the resurrection of smoking in otherwise smokefree environments. E-cigarettes look just like tobacco cigarettes, and they emit a secondhand vapor that contains various toxins, including volatile organic compounds, carcinogens, and nicotine. With tobacco companies buying e-cigarette companies and creating their own brands, the industry and its allies are back at both state legislatures and city councils advocating the right to use these products in workplaces and public places, regardless of the pollution and
potential harm to health that they create.

As we look forward to the rest of 2014 and going into 2015, we are challenged to expedite the passage of more 100% smokefree laws so that more people are protected. We must bump that percent of the U.S. population protected by strong smokefree workplace laws to 75% by the end of 2015. That is an ambitious goal, but we will be successful if we have strong support from people willing to help fight Big Tobacco's ongoing efforts to undermine the right to breathe smokefree air.


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