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Chicago Ordinance Fails to Adequately Protect Public’s Right to Breathe Clean Air

Statement of William V. Corr Executive Director, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
December 07, 2005

Washington, DC — The smoke-free ordinance passed today by the Chicago City Council with the support of Mayor Richard Daley is deeply disappointing. The ordinance makes many promises but may deliver very little in real health protection. Because full implementation of the law is delayed for two and a half years, the ordinance is susceptible to future debate, reconsideration and further weakening. In the time leading up to full implementation, the law will ensure that just a small fraction of Chicago establishments will be smoke-free, leaving most workers and customers unprotected from the serious dangers of secondhand smoke. In passing a smoke-free ordinance, the Chicago City Council has acknowledged that exposure to secondhand smoke is a serious threat to public health. Why, then, should the health of Chicagoans continue be jeopardized until at least 2008, when the evidence is clear from the growing number of smoke-free cities, states, and even entire countries that smoke-free workplace laws protect health without harming business?

The Chicago ordinance falls short in two important respects. First, the delay in the full implementation of the law will leave most hospitality workers unprotected from the 4,000 chemicals and at least 69 carcinogens in secondhand smoke for at least an additional two and a half years. Under the law, initially, only the non-bar seating areas of restaurants will restrict smoking, meaning most restaurants will not be smoke-free. Separate smoking sections do not protect workers and patrons from the serious health harms of secondhand smoke because the smoke and toxins can still flow freely between the sections. The ordinance will not make Chicago bars or most restaurants smoke-free until July 1, 2008. While the possibility that Chicago will finally join New York, Boston, Minneapolis, and other leading American cities that are already smoke-free in two and a half years holds great promise, the law delivers few health benefits in the short-term.

Second, the ordinance contains an unnecessary and weakening provision that will create confusion and unrealistic expectations among Chicago businesses. The provision could allow establishments to install ventilation technology in the future, instead of being 100 percent smoke-free. Every major scientific, medical and engineering authority agrees that ventilation technology is incapable of protecting people’s health from the toxins in secondhand smoke. Even the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the national and international standard setting body on indoor air quality, agrees and recently stated, “at present, the only means of effectively eliminating health risks associated with indoor exposure is to ban smoking activity.” The science is clear that implementing a 100 percent smoke-free workplace law is the only way to protect everyone from secondhand smoke, and it is the fairest, easiest and most cost-effective way to do so. City officials could only grant a waiver under this provision by ignoring the consensus among the nation’s leading scientists and health experts that ventilation does not eliminate the health risks from secondhand smoke. Chicago businesses need to focus on making a successful transition to becoming 100 percent smoke-free.

We salute the hard work and leadership of Alderman Ed Smith, who has tirelessly advocated to achieve health protections for everyone in Chicago, particularly the disadvantaged. The ongoing leadership of Alderman Smith and other supporters on the Council will be critical to defending against challenges to the smoke-free ordinance prior to implementation of the meaningful section of this law.

Secondhand smoke is scientifically proven to cause lung cancer, heart disease and other serious diseases and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is responsible for at least 38,000 deaths nationwide each year. Because of the risk that even short-term exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger heart attacks, the CDC has advised persons with heart disease to avoid settings where smoking is allowed. Children are especially vulnerable to other people’s smoke, suffering more bronchitis, asthma and ear infections as a result. Evidence of the many health harms from secondhand smoke is growing all the time. Recent studies have found that a pregnant woman’s exposure to secondhand smoke can be just as harmful to her fetus as if the woman herself was a smoker and that exposure to secondhand smoke has a negative impact on children’s performance on tests measuring reading, math and reasoning skills.

The evidence is also clear that smoke-free laws protect health without harming business. Dozens of studies and hard economic data have shown that smoke-free laws do not harm sales or employment in restaurants and bars and sometimes have a positive impact. Some of the strongest evidence comes from New York City, where a report found that, in the year after the city’s comprehensive smoke-free law took effect March 30, 2003, business receipts for restaurants and bars increased, employment rose, the number of liquor licenses increased, virtually all establishments are complying with the law, and the vast majority of New Yorkers support the law. There is also growing evidence that smoke-free laws can save money. A study released in August 2005 by the Society of Actuaries found that secondhand smoke costs our country $10 billion a year in health care bills, lost wages and other costs.

A growing number of cities and nine states that have passed comprehensive smoke-free workplace laws that cover restaurants and bars. Hundreds of cities and counties across the country, from Austin, Texas, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Columbus, Ohio, have taken action, as have whole countries including Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Italy and New Zealand.