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DC City Council Should Pass Comprehensive Smoke-Free Workplace Law

Testimony of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Before the DC Council Committee on Public Works and the Environment
June 15, 2005

Washington, DC — Good afternoon Chairwoman Schwartz and members of the Committee. Thank you for this opportunity to speak in support of protecting everyone's right to breathe clean air by making all DC workplaces and public places smoke-free.

My name is Matthew Myers, and I am the President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids here in Washington, DC. Our mission is to reduce the toll of tobacco on our country's health by preventing kids from starting to smoke, helping adult smokers quit, and protecting everyone from the harms of secondhand smoke. I am also a 30 year resident of the District of Columbia. I raised both of my children here, so I have both a professional and a personal interest in this issue.

First and foremost, the issue of smoking in the workplace is a health and safety issue. The science on the health effects of secondhand smoke is not new. The Surgeon General of the United States concluded that secondhand smoke is a known health hazard and a cause of cancer almost 20 years ago. Today no credible public health agency or organization disagrees. Secondhand smoke is a leading cause of preventable death in the United States. It should be treated as the Council would treat any other serious health and safety issue. We require employers to provide workers a safe place to work and we don't say to workers in any other situation - if your employer chooses to ignore basic rules to protect your safety, go find another job. Basic work place safety is a core right.

Second, it is clear that laws prohibiting smoking in workplaces, including bars and restaurants, don't adversely affect the economic wellbeing of local bars and restaurants as a whole. Time after time, the overall impact of strong smoke-free laws on restaurant and bar revenues and profits has been neutral or even positive. If some individual restaurants and bars might gain customers while others have a decline, that is not a reason for failing to provide all DC bar and restaurant workers with a safe work environment.

Third, the public supports smoke free laws by a wide margin. They grow even more popular once implemented. If the Council is going to do what the vast majority of DC residents want, then it is time to act.

It is time for our great city, the nation's capital, to join at least 8 other states and hundreds of cities across the country in protecting everyone who lives in, works in, and visits Washington DC from the avoidable harms of secondhand smoke. There is no justification for further delay.

Much of the public debate has been about the economic impact of the proposed smokefree laws. Any question regarding the economic impact of smoke-free laws has been asked and answered - repeatedly. A recently published peer-reviewed article titled, “Review of the quality of studies on the economic effects of smoke-free policies on the hospitality industry,” examined all of the studies conducted on the impact of smoke-free laws and reached the following conclusion:

“All of the best designed studies report no impact or a positive impact of smoke-free restaurant and bar laws on sales or employment. Policymakers can act to protect workers and patrons from the toxins in secondhand smoke confident in rejecting industry claims that there will be an adverse economic impact.”

This conclusion sums up the experience in New York City, Massachusetts, and many other locations. Despite the cries of complaint from the DC Restaurant Association, no credible quantitative study using actual revenue data and controlling for other relevant factors has ever concluded otherwise.

I am sure you will continue to hear these cries of doom and anecdotal stories of economic catastrophe by those who fear change no matter the experience elsewhere, but the evidence tells a different story. For example, the claims about business losses in neighboring Montgomery County, MD are simply not supported by the data. Just last week, data from the Montgomery County Board of License Commissioners demonstrated, contrary to Restaurant Association claims, that the number of facilities licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for on-premise consumption rose from 659 in July of 2003 to 674 in July of 2004 and to 698 as of January of 2005. Even more compelling, as you will hear from Andy Hyland today, an extensive analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute also shows no negative impact of the smoke-free law in Montgomery County.

The only real impact of smoke-free laws is on the health of workers and patrons of these establishments, and this impact will occur almost immediately. For example, just two months after California bars went smoke-free, complaints of respiratory problems among a sample of bartenders dropped by almost 60%.

A recent poll conducted for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network found that 74 percent of DC voters support a law that would prohibit smoking in all indoor workplaces and public places, including restaurants and bars. This support crosses party lines, demographic groups, and virtually every segment of the voting population. As in other jurisdictions, this support will only grow as DC residents experience the joys of a smoke-free city. Even majorities of smokers have come to support these laws after they are implemented in some states. In short, when DC becomes smoke-free, your voters will be both happier and healthier.

It is also important to note that alternatives like separate sections, ventilation, and incentives for going smoke-free have been studied and are not effective at protecting people from secondhand smoke.

While ventilation systems may remove some of the sight and smell of secondhand smoke, no ventilation system removes all the harmful components of secondhand smoke. These systems are an unnecessary cost to business, and neither the tobacco companies nor the ventilation companies claim that these products protect the health of workers and patrons.

Likewise, incentives to businesses to go smoke-free are costly and don't guarantee protection for anyone. We don't make public health measures like clean kitchens and safe food voluntary, and we don't pay businesses to comply.

Comprehensive laws that cover all workplaces are the cheapest, fairest, and most effective way to protect the public health. That is why these laws are sweeping the country - from coast to coast and from small cities to large. States as diverse as California, Maine, and Montana, and cities as varied as New York City, El Paso, Texas, and even Lexington, Kentucky are passing smoke-free laws because increasingly, the public and policy-makers understand that everyone has the right to breathe smoke-free air - that one person's choice to smoke should not mean that same choice is made for the person sitting or working next to him.

Thank you again for holding this roundtable. I'm happy to take any questions.