I have a young friend who worked in bars and restaurants to support herself during college. She loved the people she met as well as the flexible hours, which enabled her to maintain a busy school schedule. One thing she didn’t love? The smoky environment.
Not only did it bother her while she was at work, but after some time, she also began to notice that she was coughing more, and had a harder time breathing when she was exercising. Those smoke-filled environments were affecting her in a measurable way: In fact, a visit to her doctor showed that her lung capacity had diminished by 25 percent after working in those environments.
In 2006, the surgeon general of the United States issued a landmark report that made this startling announcement: There is no safe amount of secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, many of which are cancer-causing and can also lead to breathing problems, heart problems and other health effects in your body.
This is why BreathEasy Augusta, a community coalition, is advocating for smoke-free workplaces in Richmond County, including bars. Our workers deserve better. In particular, blue-collar and service workers are the most exposed group to secondhand smoke – and with Georgia in the nation’s top 10 for unemployment, job-hopping to avoid secondhand smoke is not an option. Every worker deserves a healthy workplace.
And guess what? Other locales that have smoke-free ordinances have found that businesses actually thrive. For one, they avoid the costs associated with secondhand smoke—roughly $10 billion in medical costs and lost wages, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. Second, historically sales actually increase. For example, an analysis by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research found that restaurant sales were up 7 percent one year after the state’s smoke-free law that made all public places and restaurants smoke-free took effect in July 2003.
Our community also deserves this. A study that measured levels of cotinine, a byproduct created by the body when it breaks down nicotine through smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, found that cotinine levels were down by 78 percent in nonsmoking workers and 47 percent in nonsmokers in New York following implementation of a smoke-free ordinance.
We’re not alone in promoting smoke-free workplaces. Many other cities and counties in the surrounding region already have smoke-free ordinances in place, such as our two closest neighbors, Columbia County and Aiken County. Others include Savannah and Chatham County, Athens/Clarke County, Charleston and Charleston County.
Can you imagine, as a patron, being able to enjoy music in a club or bar without breathing in and bringing home smoke clinging to your clothing? Can you imagine, as a worker, being able to breathe clean air for your entire eight-hour shift, compared with breathing secondhand smoke for the same amount of time? (And if you think about it, not even the heaviest chain smoker would ever smoke for an entire eight hours!) Can you imagine the positive impact on our businesses for us to be able to say that we made the choice to go smoke-free for the health of our community?
What’s your choice?
(The writer is chairwoman of the BreathEasy Augusta coalition, and is the director of respiratory therapy at Georgia Regents Health System.)