Environment and Government and Media & Marketing

NOTIONS: Must we all inhale the toxic air of hypocrisy?

February 14, 2005

Here's what I want you to do: Take your left index finger and place it on your chin. Now, slide it along your jaw up to your left ear. Now slide it straight down your neck. When you've reached the base, slide your finger outward, halfway to your shoulder.

Now, imagine that instead of a fingertip, you employ a head-and-neck surgeon with a scalpel.

And imagine that after slicing your jaw and neck, he pulls down the resulting flap of skin, muscle and nerve to reveal a mass of cancer that fills your salivary glands, clogs your lymph nodes and binds itself to your carotid artery.

Now imagine the surgeon doing his damndest to pluck out the malignant matter-every last microscopic molecule-then applying enough radiation to make a Geiger counter giddy.

Then imagine him pressing what's left of your neck back together, stapling it shut, and coating it with antibiotic goo.

Then imagine the physician, at the end of this grueling procedure, having to break the news to those who love you most in the world.

Then imagine those folks walking into the recovery room to find you lying in a web of wires, tubes, monitors, staples, salves and blood.

Chicken Little appeared in Indianapolis last week. While the sky didn't fall en masse, pieces of it did.

This triggered dire government warnings about fine-particle pollution-microscopic bits of dust, soot and liquid droplets from motor vehicles, power plants, backyard fires and more-trapped close to the ground by wacky weather.

In a Sunday editorial, The Indianapolis Star said, "The dirty air, which prompted the state's first-ever wintertime alert for unhealthy levels of soot and dust, should be the catalyst for a long-delayed discussion about the overall quality of Indiana's environment."

"The chief motivation is health," the editorial continued. "Bad air, the kind that hovered over much of the state last week, is a threat to the elderly, children and others suffering from ailments ranging from heart problems to asthma."

While we were fretting over the quality of our outdoor air, news broke about an attempt to improve our indoor air. City-County Council President Steve Talley said he would introduce legislation banning smoking in Indianapolis' restaurants, bars and other public places.

Greg Bowes, the council Democrat who drafted what The Star dubbed one of the most stringent anti-smoking laws in the nation, said, "My goal was to provide as much coverage to make as many people in the community safe from this health problem as possible."

The outcry was immediate, loud and predictable.

"As long as smoking is legal, it shouldn't be a problem," Ezy Chowning told the Star. "Why can't they keep it as it is, with smoking and nonsmoking sections?"

Ron Reust, 41, told the Star, "I feel it's my right to smoke if I choose ... What rights are they going to take away from me next?"

"This is not good law," said City-County Council Republican Scott Schneider, "It's an affront to freedom."

Well, last time I checked, no U.S. state had legalized murder. And as far as I know, only Oregon allows assisted suicide.

So Messrs. Reust and Schneider, even if we enjoyed the "freedom" to commit the slow-motion suicide that is smoking, smokers have no right to kill the rest of us by spewing their 4,000 cigarette-based chemicals into our air.

And no, Ms. Chowning, it's not enough to leave those smoking and nonsmoking sections as they are. Because those comical four-foot-high walls that separate your side from mine don't do diddly when HVAC systems suck up your carcinogens and spray them on my family and me.

And why on earth should our hypocritical governments issue dire warnings about outdoor air while lacking the political will to address indoor air? Indeed, just a month before President Bush boasted, in his State of the Union address, that "My 'clear skies' legislation will cut power plant pollution and improve the health of our citizens," the American Lung Association issued a report saying, "Despite the high economic and human costs of smoking, the federal government failed to enact strong national tobacco control policies in 2004."

I went for a walk a few weeks ago. I found myself following a fellow wearing a T-shirt with the headline, "When you can't breathe, nothing else matters."

I walked alone that morning because my wife, Pam, who's never smoked and rarely drinks, but who sat in smoky bars and restaurants with her newspaper cronies night after night, now suffers a smoker's cancer.

A year ago, she underwent the radical neck dissection described above.

Now, the damned disease fills her lungs.

So as Pam and I pray that her sixth combination of chemotherapy drugs will save her life and mine, I sing to you, dear council members, the lyrics of Maroon 5: "Is there anyone out there cause it's getting harder and harder to breathe."



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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