Casting back over this year’s menu of local political issues, nothing provoked stranger reactions than state Sen. Michael Waddoups’ bid to ban smoking in Utah’s private clubs. In fact, among the circles I travel, few issues stir stranger reactions than smoking, period.
First, let’s settle two matters most people can agree upon.
Fact: No one likes a self-righteous mob, or an unrighteous mob for that matter, telling others what they can or cannot do. People should remain forever free to listen to the music of their choice, attend the church of their choice, or decorate their house as only they see fit. If someone wants to read Bret Easton Ellis and wear a mullet, so be it.
Fact: Health is the most valuable possession anyone can own. It may not be a possession all of us hold in equal worth, or protect with like vigilance. But if you need proof that this statement is perhaps the truest ever spoken, ask anyone who suffers a terminal illness.
Secondhand smoke kills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 who do not smoke die from heart disease every year because of someone else’s cigarettes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, secondhand smoke causes another 3,000 deaths annually from lung cancer in American adults who do not smoke. Bolstering these estimates are findings touted by the American Heart Association. After Pueblo, Colo., enacted a citywide smoking ban, the number of heart attacks treated at local hospitals dropped 27 percent. Heart-attack numbers in Colorado Springs, with no smoking ban, remained constant. Another study found that when Helena, Mont., adopted a similar ban, the number of its heart attacks dropped 40 percent.
Now, why shouldn’t nonsmoking employees in private clubs receive protections from secondhand smoke equal to those given the general public? The answer among those who snarled at Waddoups’ bill earlier this year was loud and defiant. “Non-smoking employees working at smoking private clubs,” they said, “can damned well find a job somewhere else.”
After words like that, maybe we can open debate about who’s telling whom what to do. Only in Utah, where local government already gives us instructions in regards to alcohol, would people get so testy. Perhaps that’s understandable. At the same time, most of us, smokers included, would heartily agree that AIDS education, seat-belt laws, environmental regulations on industry and other measures protecting public health are worth enforcing. Ironically, smoking claims more American lives'approximately 400,000 every year'than AIDS, car accidents, murder and suicide combined.
Let’s take that irony even further. It’s a basic civic responsibility, and required by law, that drivers carry auto insurance lest they harm or kill someone in an accident. Yet some smokers insist on the right and “freedom” to continue a habit that harms other people, never mind the damage it does to their own health. It’s a skewed sense of “freedom” that lurches willingly toward an early death.
Opponents also talk about the economic harm a ban will wreak on Utah’s private clubs, but that’s no argument against doing what’s right for public health. And the soft-spoken Republican from Taylorsville is reloading his bill for another shot early next year. This time the ban is comprehensive'including social clubs'and it’s already passed through the Legislature’s health committee.
Next year seems an awfully good time to quit.