By Jim Gogek
Not too long ago, I was bragging on California in this blog because we have one of the lowest smoking rates in the country, lower than some other states by half. I said that was because California had gone smoke-free nearly 20 years ago. But now I learn that isn’t true, that California isn’t officially smoke-free and never has been.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 24 states have enacted complete smoking bans in workplaces, restaurants and bars, and California isn’t one of them. The reason why is because the groundbreaking California Smoke-free Workplace Act, passed in 1994 and never updated, today has too many holes in it that leave too many people exposed to second-hand smoke.
Now, there’s legislation afoot that will once again allow California to lead the nation in anti-tobacco action (but more importantly will help protect workers and other people from secondhand smoke). Senate Bill 575by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, is wending its way through the state legislative process this spring and summer; the bill will remove exemptions that allow indoor smoking in certain workplaces and restrict indoor tobacco smoking in owner-operated businesses. The latter is important because there’s a proliferation of hookah bars in California operating in a grey area of the law because they are supposedly owner-operated and have five or fewer employees. The new law would define owner-operated as businesses having no employees, independent contractors or
volunteers – just the owner as the only worker. Under current law, it’s OK to threaten the health of your employees if you have only five or less of them. So, if this law passes, no more indoor hookah bars, popular with young people who falsely believe hookah smoking isn’t dangerous, and no more cigar lounges in tobacco stores.
This legislation is fiercely opposed by tobacco stores, and especially cigar stores, which have no shame about the fact that they’re selling a product that kills half the people who use it as directed. Also opposing the bill, strangely enough, is the California Association of Health Facilities, which represents long-term care providers. It argues that smoking is one of the last activities that some patients can enjoy, and so they should be allowed to do it inside care facilities. To me, this is a terribly paternalistic argument; sounds like they’re saying that these poor little people are going to die anyway, so why not let them smoke? It ignores that everybody in long-term care will be physically harmed by breathing tobacco smoke, including all the workers. I’ve never understood the idea of allowing smoking in health facilities anyway.
California’s supposed smoke-free law still allows smoking, under certain conditions, in hotel lobbies, hotel and motel guest rooms, banquet facilities, small businesses, break rooms, owner-operated businesses, tobacco shops and private smokers’ lounges, warehouses, company vehicles, long-term health care facilities, volunteer-operated facilities, theatrical productions and medical research or treatment sites. When California’s smoke-free law was passed, we didn’t know what we know today about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Since then, the US Surgeon General has stated unequivocally that separate smoking rooms and ventilation systems do not eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke, and there is no safe exposure to tobacco smoke. Now we know that secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults and a number of health conditions, including sudden infant death syndrome and respiratory infections, in children. Smoke-free places not only protect us from secondhand smoke, but they also encourage smokers to quit.
Yet, Iowa, Maine, Kansas, South Dakota, Montana, even Arizona among other states have tougher smoke-free laws than California. Turkey, Bhutan and Uruguay have tougher smoke-free laws than California. When California became the first state to make bars and restaurants smoke-free, people said it would never work. Now, the rest of the world is starting to surpass the Golden State. California needs to show a little pride, pass SB 575 and become truly smoke-free.