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Commentary: Get the smoke out of our eyes

September 24, 2007

Andy Jacobs Jr. wrote in an IBJ column that smoking is an expensive and painful way to commit suicide. He's right. But he didn't go far enough. Breathing secondhand smoke at one's place of employment is also an expensive and painful way to go.

The world is beginning to read the smoke signals. Many countries have passed laws to protect their work force from secondhand smoke. Today, you cannot smoke even in an Irish pub.

In our country, 22 states have enacted smoking bans. Indiana has an opportunity to be counted among these enlightened states by approving a comprehensive smoke-free workplace law that protects all Hoosier employees. The Health Finance Commission of the Indiana General Assembly is looking at this legislation, and if it has any sense will recommend its passage without dilution.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, tens of thousands of Americans die each year due to illnesses caused by exposure to secondhand smoke. Every Hoosier has a stake in this endeavor; we all need breathing room. Studies have shown that the number of patients brought to hospital emergency rooms after suffering heart attacks decreases when smoking bans are in effect. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to secondhand smoke for as little as 30 minutes can significantly increase the risk of a heart attack.

Not only is secondhand smoke toxic for the health of workers, it is also toxic to Indiana's business climate. If we want to grow Indiana's economy, attract good jobs and create a healthy economic base for our state, we must reduce our preventable health care costs. Costs due to tobacco-related diseases make up a significant portion of these costs. Call it a "drag" on the economy.

Indiana has the fifth-highest smoking rate per capita in the United States and this correlates to a similar ranking in terms of smoking-related diseases, including heart disease, stroke, emphysema and lung cancer. In Indiana, tobacco-related illnesses cost Hoosiers more than $2 billion each year due to the cost of smoking and secondhand smoke-related diseases.

This has a huge negative impact on employers' bottom line. Ask J. Edward Berry, executive director of state and local government relations for General Motors Corp., who in a letter to Gov. Daniels stated that, based on 2005 data, GM's health care spending per member in Indiana was 18 percent higher than its average cost per member in all states, 15 percent higher than similar costs in Ohio, and 23 percent higher than similar costs in Michigan.

A statewide ban will not hurt business. Examine the Italian experience. In 2006, Italy enacted a comprehensive law that banned smoking in public places. According to studies quoted by The New York Times, the smoking ban has become popular and Italy now enjoys an environment in which people smoke less and are exposed to far less secondhand smoke. Moreover, respondents to a survey in Rome said the ban had not hurt their bar or restaurant business.

There is a giant task ahead to educate the public, members of the Legislature and other elected officials, the media, and the business community about the importance of this issue. Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation estimates that tobacco interests will spend over $400 million to promote their position and to derail life-saving legislation. We are at war against smoking-a war in which our casualties are literally going up in smoke.

Within a decade, an overwhelming percentage of the workplaces throughout the country and around the globe will be free of secondhand smoke. The trend is clear. Why does Indiana have to wait until every other state in the Union has acted? Now is the time for the Legislature to resist those interests that place corporate profits from cigarette sales above the health of our populace. Now is the time for Indiana to protect its most valuable asset-its citizens.



Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.comor go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.com.
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