Opinion and Forefront

MYERS: Now ban smoking during the Indy 500

June 16, 2012

Woodrow MyersThe world as we know it did not end. The sky did not fall. Neither locusts nor other pests descended from the heavens.

On June 1, the upgraded rules eliminating smoking tobacco in a number of public places in Indianapolis went into effect. And instead of the business catastrophe predicted by those addicted to nicotine or to the profits derived from those addicted to nicotine, all was calm; the bars and taverns were still full, and there was peace on the streets of Indianapolis.

The health benefits of eliminating exposure to tobacco smoke are real. They are scientifically undisputed, and they benefit current smokers, former smokers and non-smokers alike. Tobacco smoke remains the leading preventable cause of cancer and heart disease in Indiana and the rest of the world. Years from now, our grandchildren will look back at us and wonder incredulously how we could have permitted smoking for as long as we did when the evidence against it was so absolutely clear.

But our work is not done.

The next target has to be our Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (The ordinance passed by the City-County Council does not cover IMS.) Although you cannot smoke in the pit areas or in gasoline alley (where it is a safety issue), you can still smoke in the stands (where it is both a health and a safety issue).

Do people still smoke in their seats throughout IMS? Yes they do, and in doing so, they expose the fans around them, many of whom are under 18 years old, to the toxic carcinogens and to bronchial irritants (provoking asthma attacks) that are loaded in their smoke.

Our most recent Indy 500 was just about the best ever. It had all you could want in a 500-mile race—multiple lead changes, well-executed (and botched) pit stops, exceptionally skilled passing and an incredibly exciting finish. There was also something we did not want. Two rows in front of us, two nicotine-addicted fans lit cigarette after cigarette after cigarette.

And no, the wind does not disperse or dilute the smoke before it enters the lungs of all the fans in the vicinity of the smoker. Our out-of-town guests were shocked there was no smoking ban at an event that draws over a quarter of a million fans from around the world and allows young children to attend.

It is not at all complicated. The owners of the track can simply announce that, as of the next race, smoking will not be allowed in the stands. They do not need permission from the town of Speedway or the state of Indiana to do so. They can simply make the decision to protect the health of the fans and announce the change.

If they would like a little “help,” they could quietly ask Speedway to enact an extension of its smoking ban to include the grandstands around the track. Either way, fans would be protected and the race would be much more enjoyable for the many thousands of us who will no longer tolerate breathing in the tobacco smoke of others.

So would this change be in line with other major outdoor sporting events?

It is illegal to smoke at Ross-Ade when the Boilermakers are playing. It is illegal to smoke at Memorial Stadium when the Hoosiers are playing. It is illegal to smoke at Notre Dame Stadium when the Irish are playing. You can’t even smoke at the Daytona 500 or at the Kentucky Derby (and weren’t cigarettes practically invented in Kentucky?). But it’s still OK to light up at the Indianapolis 500. And it is time (past time) for that to change.

Indy 500 officials and owners need not worry. The race will remain exciting. The stands will remain full. Neither locusts nor others pests will descend from the heavens. The sky will not fall. And both the ladies’ and the gentlemen’s engines will still start.•

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Myers is a former chief medical officer for WellPoint Inc. and served as health commissioner for Indiana and New York City. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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