Still fighting against secondhand smoke

Imagine you’re at your local coffee shop trying to enjoy a quick breakfast while reading the paper, yet the cigarette smoke blowing your way makes it hard to keep reading, much less breathe.

Imagine you’re meeting an important client for lunch, yet the tobacco smoke blowing in your face from just three booths away makes it hard to keep a straight face.

Imagine you’re at a family restaurant celebrating with your kids, but the smoke from the birthday candles is overshadowed by the tobacco smoke from across the dining room.

It seems hard to imagine today, but that was the reality in Florida just 10 years ago. Our state has come a long way since July 2003, when Florida’s indoor workplaces went smoke-free, with few exceptions. This month, we’re celebrating 10 years of cleaner air and healthier residents thanks to the more than 71 percent of Florida citizens who voted for this constitutional amendment to Florida’s Clean Indoor Air Act.

Substantial progress has been made in protecting Floridians from tobacco smoke. Many private businesses, outdoor venues, and healthcare facilities have instituted property-wide smoking bans. Twenty colleges and universities in Florida have enacted 100 percent smoke-free campus policies. In June 2011, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law amending the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act to give school boards the authority to designate all district property as tobacco free. Currently, all but two (65 total) school districts have implemented tobacco-related policies.

Yet despite the growing trend of smoke-free policies, including policies even extending beyond Florida’s law, and despite the significant decrease in smokers in the state, Floridians are involuntarily affected by secondhand smoke’s toxic chemicals.

In Florida, smoking is still permitted in stand-alone bars, nightclubs, outdoor restaurants, and public spaces like beaches and parks. Many of the employees in these establishments don’t have the luxury of choosing their health over their jobs. Every day, they put their health at risk to make a living and to provide for their families. There’s more evidence now than ever that secondhand smoke causes severe damage. Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals and compounds. Hundreds of these are toxic and at least 69 are proven to cause cancer. There is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke.

Secondhand smoke exposure, even for short periods of time, can be dangerous. For people suffering from heart conditions, exposure to secondhand smoke — even walking through smoke to get into a building — can trigger a heart attack. In addition to impacting heart health, exposure to secondhand smoke can increase the risk of many respiratory illnesses, including emphysema, bronchitis, chronic airway obstruction and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Secondhand smoke also significantly increases the risk of lung cancer, Florida’s number-one cancer killer.

Children are especially at risk, as secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung problems, and ear infections, and triggers severe asthma attacks. Secondhand smoke exposure even doubles an infant’s risk of death from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

So while we celebrate the progress Florida has made, let’s also look at the work ahead in the fight against tobacco, the state’s leading cause of preventable death. Comprehensive smoke-free policies not only protect people from secondhand smoke but they also de-normalize tobacco use. When fewer people are seen smoking, more smokers are encouraged to quit and fewer youth ever start.

A state with fewer smokers is a state with fewer incurable illnesses, fewer premature deaths, and fewer loved ones left behind because of tobacco’s devastating toll — a healthier Florida and a healthier future for all.

Shannon Hughes is chief of the Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida, a state program funded by Florida’s tobacco settlement.

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