NOTIONS: Race for the cure; reach for the phone

April 25, 2005

Spring has exploded in my urban garden. The climbing hydrangeas race up the trellises. The perennials ascend toward azure blue. And the flowering crab has erupted like a Fourth of July firework.

It was a hard winter for us. Last fall, two shrubs by the stone bench turned brown and we couldn't save them. In December, the blue spruce by the back gate shed its needles and died. And my fellow gardener, who planted this place and nurtured it with her steady hand, now tends more hallowed ground.

Last Sunday, I sat on the bench in my lonely Eden, reading The New York Times and noshing on an apple. The "Week in Review" cover featured a centerpiece about human delusion. The satiric lead said:

"The promises are everywhere. Sure, you smoked. But you can erase all those years of abusing your lungs if you just throw away the cigarettes. Eating a lot of junk food? Change your diet, lose even five or 10 pounds and rid yourself of those extra risks of heart disease and diabetes. Stay out of the sun-who cares if you spent your youth in a state of bronzed bliss? If you protect yourself now, skin cancer will never get you."

Reporter Gina Kolata went on to explain how we Americans, believing that we control everything, including our bodies, delude ourselves into thinking we can reverse years of damage inflicted by bad habits by merely quitting.

Indeed, we fancy ourselves Persephone, and no matter what wintry abuse we heap on ourselves and one another, we figure we can rebound like the season whenever we feel compelled.

Downtown the other day, I witnessed the epitome of this self-deception. A fellow strode across Illinois Street beneath the Artsgarden. On his left wrist, he wore a yellow "livestrong" bracelet-a trendy symbol of the fight against cancer. In the same hand, he carried a cancer-causing cigarette. As I walked behind him, he took puff after puff, blowing exhaust in my direction.

The deception doesn't end on city sidewalks, either.

Last month, I saw the president of the United States and the U.S. Congress grow so concerned for the sanctity of one brain-damaged life (Terry Schiavo's) that they rushed to enact legislation trying to save her.

In the meantime, these same federal officials care so little about the sanctity of millions of lives (including yours and mine) that they've not even bothered with legislation banning life-threatening secondhand smoke. Instead, they let the restaurant-liquor-tobacco lobby slug it out with health advocates one community or state at a time.

Last week, an Indiana University Public Opinion Laboratory researcher presented findings from a study on public attitudes about workplace smoking. After talking with 600 residents in eight central Indiana counties, he reported that:

60 percent felt secondhand smoke is a serious health hazard.

More than 80 percent-including a majority of smokers-agreed that workers should be protected from secondhand smoke in the workplace.

More than 85 percent, including a majority of smokers, agreed that "restaurants and other public places would be healthier for customers and employees if they were smoke-free."

Two-thirds said they'd support an ordinance banning smoking in public places.

And contrary to those who fear a loss of business from such a ban, 85 percent said they'd eat out as much or more if a smoking ban passed.

Where I studied political science, numbers like that spell "landslide." Surely, having seen such overwhelming support, any self-respecting politician would say, "Put me in front of that parade," right?

Well, not when the silent majority remains silent and those driven by fiscal self-interest twist arms and line political pockets.

In fact, at a recent public hearing on Indianapolis' proposed smoking ban, I watched restaurant-tavern-tobacco lobbyists whisper in the ears of witness after witness, prepping them to plead economic peril should Indianapolis dare join the 21st century and cities, states and countries around the world in preserving health and saving lives with a workplace smoking ban.

Last month, California's Air Resources Board released a report linking secondhand smoke to breast cancer. "Women exposed to secondhand smoke have up to a 90-percent greater risk of breast cancer," the report said. It also said secondhand smoke kills as many as 73,400 people a year in the United States.

On April 16, more than 37,000 people concerned about breast cancer "raced for the cure" downtown. It was an extraordinary gesture.

But if those 37,000 people would take one more preventive step, phone the City-County Council, and tell them to fight cancer and other diseases by banning workplace smoking, well, hope-like my garden-might spring eternal.

The number is 327-4242. Call before the committee vote on May 5. And please forward this request to every health-conscious person you know.

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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