Blowing more smoke

Augustans still have the 'right' to breathe toxic air

The Augusta Commission has missed a chance to make the city healthier.

A proposed smoking ordinance, defeated Tuesday by a 3-6-1 vote, would have banned smoking in all public places and some outdoor areas, such as parks and construction sites. It was a Breather’s Bill of Rights.

We understand why some bar owners prefer the status quo: Georgia law bans smoking in establishments that allow patrons and employees younger than age 18. Thus, bars are fair game for smoke – and they get a dense concentration of it. They also argue they should decide whether to allow smokers on their property, and if some customers don’t want to be around smoke – well, they aren’t forced to be there.

The problem is, under that line of reasoning bars and restaurants also should have the right to serve expired, five-year-old mayonnaise, or to wipe down their countertops with DDT. Or to sprinkle shards of glass over entrees, or to serve polluted water.

Do those “rights” sound ridiculous? Of course they do. Responsible business owners wouldn’t dream of endangering the health of their customers and employees. And we have laws prohibiting it, in order to safeguard the public health.

Oops. Shouldn’t that apply to the air, too? Or maybe even
primarily to the air – since we don’t all order the mayo or drink the tap water, but we do all breathe the air?

The tar in cigarette smoke contains – among more than 4,000 identified chemicals – carbon monoxide, cyanide, formaldehyde, ammonia, arsenic and benzene. So, if a bar or restaurant owner legally can’t put such toxic junk in someone’s drink, it shouldn’t be allowed in someone’s air supply.

All our freedoms have limits. And there may not be an endeavor on Earth as tightly regulated as the food service industry. You wouldn’t believe the amount of things restaurants have to remember to do right – from where to put things to what temperature everything must be at any particular time to how to handle food and equipment and more. They don’t have the freedom to store and serve dangerous food. It’s a health issue. And no one is guaranteed the “freedom” to endanger anyone else’s health.

Why should the air be any less safe?

Researcher Paul Mowery measured air quality in 25 Augusta establishments last year for Georgia’s East Central Public Health District, which includes Augusta. Cigarettes burned in 16 of those businesses. Dr. Mowery found the pollution levels in those 16 places were more than 10 times over the limit for outdoor air.

Of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to grasp that cigarette smoke is at the heart of much of that pollution.

There may yet be a way for some operators to cling more tightly to their freedom than to their workers’ and customers’ health: The law could simply exempt private clubs with dues-paying members.

But if you want to invite the public into your place of business, then the public simply – logically – has to be accommodated with a safe environment.

Most every other form of pollution already is illegal. It’s simply amazing that smoking in all public places is not.

The ordinance commissioners voted on Tuesday originally overreached – by trying to criminalize smoking in vehicles with children. That is clearly going too far: As stupid as smoking around kids is, we can’t have the government regulating legal behavior in our cars and homes.

But that provision had been removed by the time commissioners voted down the bill. The final version was reasonable, and should’ve been approved.

Some on the commission appear concerned about burdening the sheriff’s department with enforcement duties. That’s a red herring. Public health officials could be given that task. And besides, as we’ve already seen, it would be largely self-enforcing. Most smokers, as most businesses, don’t want to run afoul of the law or burden their nonsmoking brethren.

We need to revisit this issue – perhaps after the next election.

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