If You Can't Stand the Smoke, Ban the Smoke 

New Legislation to Ban Smoking in Bars is Gaining Approval... and Why Shouldn't It?

After about six hours of partying at a local bar a few Fridays ago, I'd managed to smoke 18 cigarettes. The next morning I woke up feeling like shit--but not only that; I was nearly paralyzed. My chest felt tight, and I thought I was having a heart attack. I went for a walk to get the blood moving, but the pain didn't subside. I concluded I had a blood clot in my lung, and again, would soon be dead. Banging on my chest with my fist, I hoped to dislodge the blood clot, or to hurry along my inevitable cardiac arrest so at least I'd die quickly. However, if I made it through, I promised myself I'd never smoke again.

By the next day the pain had been cut in half. I concluded I'd pinched a nerve and Friday's smoke-a-thon had nothing to do with it. I then went out with a friend to a smoking establishment, and even though I'd sworn off smoking forever only 14 hours before, I was suddenly puffing a Camel Light. The shooting pain returned immediately, and I put the cigarette out. Once again, I stopped smoking--but it didn't last longer than a day.

I bore you with this tale of woe, because had the smoking ban been in effect in Oregon, I would not have been forced to suffer so greatly. If I weren't allowed to smoke in bars, I wouldn't have much occasion to smoke at all. But the smoking ban isn't about me; it's about the employees in the hospitality industry who have to breathe my smoke.

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR

Under Oregon's smoke-free workplace law, established in 2001, the only employees excluded from secondhand smoke protection in their workplace were hospitality workers--a total of 33,000 Oregonians. While one might not feel like they need to be "protected" from something as elusive as secondhand smoke--especially if the employee is a smoker himself--few people realize the immense quantity of smoke they're inhaling. According to Dr. Michael Siegel, whose study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, during an eight-hour shift in a smoking establishment employees inhale as much smoke as if they were sitting at the bar smoking a pack of cigarettes themselves.

Laura Culberson, director of the Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oregon, is championing the WorkSmokeFree.com campaign, which is pushing for a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants. Proposed bill SB 722, which would update the law, is at present stalled in the Oregon legislature. WorkSmokeFree.com hopes to persuade the legislature to take action on the bill again this year.

Culberson explains the goal of the campaign "is organizing bar and restaurant workers and owners, musicians, and others in the hospitality industry to write letters to legislators, to encourage other community organizations to join the campaign, and to educate the media and public about the rights of all Oregonians to breathe clean air."

While the average smoker might dismiss WorkSmokeFree.com's goal as hypersensitive lefty fluff, when you stop to absorb the overall effects of tobacco on smokers, hospitality workers, and even patrons, it's hard to say a smoking ban would be such a bad thing.

According to Culberson, "tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death and disability for everyone. Smoking itself kills more people than alcohol, illegal drugs, AIDS, car accidents, murder, and suicide combined. Secondhand smoke alone is the number three preventable cause of death, and causes the same diseases in smokers as nonsmokers. For every eight smokers the tobacco industry kills, it takes one nonsmoker with them."

Really, if you think about it, it seems unfair for the hospitality industry to be left out of the smoking ban when all other workers are protected. Culberson explains that "society has determined the health risks associated with secondhand smoke are too high, which is why Oregon has banned smoking in all other workplaces. But by exempting bars and restaurants from the same protection, it is like saying that we should remove asbestos in my office, but not in my neighbor's."

SMOKE LESS, DRINK MORE

For smokers, the other side of the argument isn't as compelling. In New York, where they recently passed a statewide smoking ban on July 24, bar owners are complaining of 35 to 50 percent losses in business since the ban took effect. Of course, it's only been a few weeks, and Culberson cites California--a state that has successfully supported a ban for eight years--as evidence that lost revenue is not a continuing trend. Just as the building of the Interstate Max line has cost businesses in the short term, but could actually help sales in the long run, Culberson explains how the smoking ban can actually increase future growth.

"While there can be a dip in sales right after a ban goes into effect, revenue quickly climbs back up and eventually increases, as is the case in California. One year after the ban, sales were back on par with where they had been before. The business comes back after people get used to being in a smoke- free environment. The reports by [New York] bar owners [of lost business] are anecdotal evidence, whereas every economic study done using sales tax shows that a ban has no net impact. To make any kind of judgment a week after it passes is just based on people's stories."

Presently, nearby states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey are reporting increases in business due to New York's ban. Coralee, manager of the Space Room bar and Brite Spot restaurant on Southeast Hawthorne, expressed concern that the same trend would occur in Oregon, causing local business to lose money.

"I was talking to a nonsmoking bartender about the smoking ban in Portland," she said, "and her response was, 'I would lose all my good customers, and maybe my job. They would go to the closest bar outside of Multnomah County.' It's just like in Boston where they banned smoking and everyone goes and drinks in Somerville and Medford and all the little cities around it."

While the smoking ban amendment, SB 722, seeks to phase out smoking in bars and restaurants throughout the state, Coralee's argument has merit, considering our close proximity to Washington. As a bar-goer, however, I have a hard time relating to the truly dedicated smoker Coralee describes, because I would never drive to Vancouver just to smoke a cigarette indoors.

STUBBORN AMERICANS

If one were to compare the "people's right to smoke in bars" to "people's right to bear arms," both causes have members who are unwilling to compromise their rights--even for the greater good of society. For example, murders committed in the U.S. with handguns are 14.5 times higher than in Canada, where handgun ownership isn't permitted. Americans, however, feel it's their right to own a concealed weapon, despite the overwhelming evidence it does more harm than good.

Similarly, in Helena, Montana, where the city outlawed smoking for six months before the law was suspended, the number of heart attack victims dropped by 60 percent; a reduction researchers believe was due primarily to the ban. The study's authors--physicians at St. Peter's Community Hospital in Helena--attributed the sharp decrease in heart attacks (or acute myocardial infarctions) to "a near-elimination of the rapid and harmful effects of secondhand smoke on blood platelets and the arteries that supply blood to the heart." They also noted that smoke-free environments often urge people to stop or decrease their smoking, which in turn reduces the risk of heart attack.

THE DEATH OF THE DIVE BAR?

It's fair to say that everyone has the right to kill themselves--and few people think of cigarette smoking in such dramatic terms--but is it fair for bar and restaurant workers to be poisoned while they're working? Before I read the statistics, I was not in support of a smoking ban. But afterwards, it just seems gluttonous and unfair to subject everyone to my smoke. I mean do I really need a cigarette that badly, and if I do, can't I go outside to smoke it?

I admit, I love to go to the Matador and smoke 12 cigarettes with a stiff cocktail. And I don't think I would ever step foot in the Jockey Club if I couldn't choke down a half- pack of Parliaments while at the bar. But then again, I may not be the majority.

In a poll of 20 Mercury writers, eight out of 10 said they would go to the dive bar even if it didn't allow smoking, and three out of those ten don't go to dive bars now because they can't stand the smoke. So yes, if the ban passed, your favorite dive might have a few more whiney pussies in it. But it might also have a few less depressing old men who are carting around an oxygen tank while puffing down two packs a day. Rationally, what are we hanging onto? Besides the right to sit indoors and blow smoke in someone else's face?

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