Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Guest Post: Pass a statewide smoke-free workplace law

By Kenneth Cooper, MD, MPH
Founder and Chairman
Cooper Aerobics Center, Dallas
 
Imagine working at a place where each employee is required to spend a full shift working in a room where the air contains 70 known cancer-causing chemicals, including formaldehyde, benzene and arsenic. As a condition of employment, the employee must consent to this environment or choose to work elsewhere.

Many Texans would say this is an intolerable situation that should not be allowed under any circumstances and that a business owner could never get away with knowingly putting employees at risk.

Thus it is hard to believe that thousands of Texans’ lives are put in danger each day in this exact way — those who make their living in restaurants, bars and other workplaces across the state that allow smoking. These employees are exposed to secondhand smoke day after day because there are no statewide protections in place.

One of the most dangerous health hazards in America today — one that is entirely preventable — is secondhand smoke. As the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, secondhand smoke kills 3,400 Americans through lung cancer and about 46,000 through heart disease annually.

In the past 55 years that I have been practicing medicine, I have seen the detrimental effects of secondhand smoke exposure, including asthma, allergies, throat and mouth cancers and bronchitis — not to mention lung cancer and heart disease. I have worked with many patients dedicated to living long and healthy lives through regular exercise, healthy diets and other preventive techniques, only to be diagnosed with one of these life-threatening diseases — all because they were unwillingly exposed to secondhand smoke. It is a disgrace that other people’s actions can cause such significant and preventable harm.

Few actions by state lawmakers will have a greater positive impact on the health and well-being of Texans than passing a statewide smoke-free workplace law. This law will protect employees and customers from the dangers of secondhand smoke, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars for taxpayers. It is important for voters to understand the facts and benefits of a smoke-free workplace law as they make decisions on the future leadership of our state.

In addition to the health benefits, the numerous economic benefits this legislation would provide to our state are undeniable. Businesses, employees and taxpayers would all benefit from statewide smoke-free legislation because of insurance coverage, health care costs and other direct and indirect costs of secondhand smoke exposure. In fact, a 2011 study estimates that a statewide comprehensive law against smoking in the workplace would benefit the Texas economy by more than $400 million in health care costs and productivity savings each biennium.

Opponents argue that business owners have a right to choose whether they want to allow smoking inside their establishment. While I respect that business owners have the right to make decisions on behalf of their business, that right should not override an individual’s right to not have his or her most private property — their lungs — harmed by the choices of others. Businesses should not continue to put their employees in harm’s way.

Many cities have adopted comprehensive ordinances that prohibit smoking in indoor workplaces, but unfortunately many Texans live in unincorporated cities or rural areas where no entity exists to pass or enforce this type of legislation. Without a statewide smoke-free workplace law, millions of Texans will remain unprotected from secondhand smoke exposure.

Last session, Texas was closer than ever to passing this legislation, thanks to the tireless work and dedication of many of our state’s leaders and thousands of others who continue to actively voice their support for the legislation. The involvement of concerned Texas voters throughout this election cycle is critical to ensure our state’s leaders make this issue a priority in 2013.

Kenneth Cooper, MD, MPH, specializes in preventive medicine and is founder and chairman of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.

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