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Law will benefit workers

MY VIEW • Smoking ban will boost safety, health on job
by: Tribune file photo, With Oregon’s Smokefree Workplace Law taking effect Jan. 1, people’s exposure to secondhand smoke will be greatly reduced, and it’s likely that less time will be lost to sick leave and disability.

Recently I saw an episode of the hit AMC series 'Mad Men' about an advertising agency in New York City in the 1960s. While I enjoyed the show immensely, I also was struck by one thing in this show that we don't see in offices today: cigarette smoke.

Cigarette smoke hangs over this show like a pall. In one scene, I was particularly jarred by the sight of a doctor examining a patient while a lit cigarette dangles from his mouth. In keeping with the show, this brought to my mind an advertising slogan from about that time: 'You've come a long way, baby!'

Most places where people work have been smoke-free for years. Many of us can't imagine what it would be like to work where people are allowed to smoke indoors.

But one group of workers hasn't enjoyed the freedom from cigarette smoke that most of us now have: hospitality workers - bartenders, servers and hosts who work in places exempt from Oregon's current smoke-free workplace law.

Studies have shown that servers are four times as likely to contract cancer as other workers. Secondhand smoke contributes to poor respiratory health and increased incidence of asthma. In fact, secondhand smoke exposure causes an estimated 800 deaths per year in Oregon, according to the American Lung Association.

Costs to employers are high as well. Exposure to secondhand smoke makes employees sick, leading to more breaks and sick days; cleaning costs are higher and, in many cases, insurance costs more.

Happily, this unhealthy state of affairs will end this January with the enactment of changes to Oregon's Smokefree Workplace Law that will require bars, bingo halls and bowling centers to be smoke-free, just like other workplaces in Oregon.

The benefits of smoke-free bars, bingo halls and bowling centers are clear. Studies find that bartenders' respiratory health improves after implementing a state law making bars smoke-free. This means less time lost to sick leave and disability and - even better - many employees who smoke will take this opportunity to quit.

Smoke-free bars and restaurants are good for the public, as well. Cities implementing comprehensive smoke-free workplace laws see hospital emergency room visits for heart attacks drop.

According to the 2006 report of the U.S. Surgeon General, exposure of adults to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer. The report concluded that there was no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Despite what the tobacco industry would have you believe, study after study shows that bars experience little to no drop in business revenue after the law goes into effect.

While a few smokers may stay home, this is more than made up for by an increase in business from the more than 80 percent of Oregonians who are nonsmokers and who frequent these businesses more now that they are smoke-free.

So we all have another reason to celebrate when we ring in this coming new year. Smoke-free bars, bingo halls and bowling centers mean healthier workers, healthier, more satisfied customers, and healthier bottom lines. We've come a long way, baby!

Mel Kohn is a state epidemiologist for the Office of Disease Prevention and Epidemiology at the Oregon Public Health Division. He lives in Northeast Portland.