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Commentary: Smoke-Free St. Louis is a matter of health

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2009 - As a smoker, when I heard about another city adopting a smoke-free policy, I sighed and bemoaned the loss of personal freedom. So, how did I go from indignant smoker to the director of Smoke-Free St. Louis City? Pretty simple actually, I got informed and now spend my time promoting smoke-free workplaces and refuting the twisted logic to which I once adhered.

Let me explain. I spent a year in Chicago after living in St. Louis; I came to enjoy the smoke-free atmosphere in Illinois and actually quit smoking. I could go out to a bar, have a drink and come home smelling like perfume instead of an ashtray.

When I moved back to St. Louis, the smoky bars took some getting used to. It seemed out-dated for a city like St. Louis to not have a smoke-free policy. I joined Smoke-Free St. Louis City , a community coalition that has since blossomed into a full-on grassroots movement with thousands of members and more than 50 supportive businesses and organizations.

Unfortunately, our city lags behind when it comes to common-sense public health policy. St. Louis was just voted the worst city in the nation for asthma sufferers, was named the top haven for smokers by Forbes magazine, and Missouri recently got an "F" on the American Lung Association Tobacco Control Report Card.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data prove that smoke-free laws reduce exposure to secondhand smoke among workers and the public, reduce cigarette consumption rates, increase successful quit attempts and reinforce efforts to reduce tobacco use among children -- all positive changes.

Too often when smoke-free policies are discussed, it becomes an emotional battle of smoking vs. smoke-free. And in that fierce debate, the health component gets clouded by the doom-and-gloom scenarios designed and distributed by the tobacco industry. The U.S. surgeon general has stated there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and our city's 14,000 hospitality workers are left unprotected. Of the 1,100 bars and restaurants in the city, less than 9 percent are smoke-free.

Opponents often say "just get another job," but most can't. In this economy you can't just quit a job and hope to get a new one. Those who serve our meals and drinks in St. Louis need the flexible hours and good pay that working in a bar, restaurant or casino affords. Most don't have the luxury of working in a smoke-free office, and no one should have to choose between their health and a paycheck.

Whenever the smoke-free issue is broached, there is the customary wringing of hands and the recitation of dismal anecdotes. In 1987 in California, tobacco industry operatives invented the myth that restaurants would lose 30 percent of their business due to a smoke-free law. Today, that tale has grown taller, with unfounded claims of up to 40 or 50 percent in lost revenue.

In contrast, hundreds of reputable economic studies based on impartial sales tax receipts illustrate there is no adverse impact on business. In fact, a 2008 Mellman Group poll found that 80 percent of people in St. Louis city would go out more or the same if our bars and restaurants were smoke-free.

St. Louis city can't afford to not go smoke-free. Restaurants in smoke-free cities have an average of 16 percent higher market value at resale than those in smoke-filled cities. More than 30 national and state organizations will not host meetings or conventions in cities without a comprehensive smoke-free law. Our downtown is losing out on valuable convention business from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association, among others.

Others believe air filtration is the answer, but it's not a viable alternative to going smoke-free. These filtration systems simply don't work. The cancer-causing particles in smoke are too small to be filtered out, and these machines have been proven ineffective time and again.

The Roswell Park Cancer Institute conducted a study in St. Louis City last summer, testing the air quality in 10 random bars. Two of the bars sampled had newly installed filtration systems but still had pollution 10 times higher than outdoor air. Reducing exposure to secondhand smoke is not the same as eliminating it. A little bit of poison is still poison.

The bottom line is that the myths and cleverly manipulated numbers are there to distract from the real issue: Everyone has the right to breathe smoke-free indoor air. When I was a smoker, I bought into that skewed perception, but the side I now stand on is healthier, happier and clearly backed by science.

While some want St. Louis City to remain stuck in the past, I see great potential for progress. Look at Old North St. Louis, Cherokee Park and the many other vibrant neighborhoods -- we live in a remarkable city. A smoke-free policy is fundamental as our city strides toward a rebirth. This is St. Louis city's chance to be a leader in our region and improve the health of everyone -- smokers and nonsmokers alike.

Diana Benanti is the director of the Smoke-Free St. Louis City coalition.

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