For the sake of public health, it's time for Augusta to go smoke-free

Public health has many definitions, but to boil it down to its simplest meaning, it’s always concerned with any issue that affects the well-being of a whole lot of people. Over my 35-year career in public health, the issues have included everything from clean water and clean air to a safe environment and access to healthy food.

Public health connects us all. And positive change happens when we partner together, whether that’s policymakers, business owners or grassroots organizations. Reducing exposure to secondhand smoke is a basic health issue that we all need to support. In a landmark 2006 report, the U.S. surgeon general stated unequivocally that there is no safe amount of secondhand smoke. Consider too that secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic and can cause cancer.

STUDIES ALSO have demonstrated that adults who breathe in five hours of secondhand smoke (about average for a workplace such as a bar where smoking occurs) have higher “bad” cholesterol, and the exposure also increases a person’s risk of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent.

Organizations such as Healthy Augusta are working to reach the goal of clean air for workers in Augusta and the CSRA. When I was asked by community leaders to re-establish Healthy Augusta in October 2013, we immediately knew that reducing exposure to secondhand smoke would be one of our primary goals.

The first reason was the health dangers for workers and business patrons when breathing in the dangerous chemicals during hours of exposure. Second, we saw the benefits of a smoke-free ordinance on a city during a visit with Healthy Savannah. When Augusta’s smoke-free ordinance was being voted down several months ago, Savannah’s already had been approved. The business owners were very pleased with the benefits. Despite fears and negative predictions, their businesses actually improved after the ordinance was put in place. They also liked the health benefits for their employees. Interestingly, some business owners told us they were simply waiting for the ordinance to pass so they didn’t have to be the “bad guys” to their customers.

ACCORDING TO recent statistics, a majority of residents in Augusta-Richmond County support going smoke-free. Eight-two percent of residents surveyed said that smoking should never be allowed indoors in workplaces, and 61 percent of Republican voters in Augusta supported smoke-free policies during a 2012 ballot straw poll. I’ve seen this support personally through 25 organizations (and growing!) that represent the steering committee for Healthy Augusta, and who now advocate for smoke-free workplaces.

As a member of this community, I urge you to contact your commissioner and let him or her know where you stand on the issue of secondhand smoke. I encourage our Augusta Commission to keep the public’s health in mind as its members cast their votes for the smoke-free ordinance May 6.

(The writer is the facilitator for Healthy Augusta; director of the Georgia Regents University Institute of Public and Preventive Health; and vice president of the Georgia Public Health Association.)

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