Rod Driver

Column from the Warwick Beacon, April 12, 1988

Smoking Legislation


Some 50 million Americans can attest that nicotine is a particularly addictive drug. Many who have been treated for addiction to more than one drug have actually found tobacco the hardest to beat.

Nicotine is also a "gateway" drug to marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. As many as 50 percent of youngsters who start smoking before age 15 go on to other drugs.

And statistically nicotine is our most deadly drug. Some 3,000 Americans die per year as a direct result of the use of illegal drugs. Another 6,000 die from AIDS which is often spread by contaminated needles used for illegal drugs.

But the death toll to lung cancer, emphysema, heart attacks and other ailments caused by ordinary tobacco exceeds 300,000 per year.

Most addictions occur in young people, and tobacco companies recognize this. As Rep. Mike Synar, D-OK, points out "they lose 1.5 million smokers a year who have to be replaced: 350,000 to death, and the rest because they quit."

So tobacco advertising is directed at young people. Notice the pictures in the ads -- handsome, happy, sophisticated young adults -- and the free samples distributed at rock and roll concerts.

(Some of the promotion is for chewing tobacco. Recent studies in Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana, indicate that in some areas as many as 2O percent of grade-school children now use chewing tobacco.)

Apart from the health risks which smokers accept for themselves, their smoke increases the risk of lung cancer and other lung ailments in those around them.

Rhode Island's "Workplace Smoking Pollution Control Act," adopted in 1986, has helped many Rhode

Islanders. It requires that employers adopt a policy to protect nonsmokers. And where employers have adopted total smoking bans and sponsored programs to help nicotine addicts break the habit, both smokers and nonsmokers have benefited.

Enforcement of the "Workplace Smoking Pollution Control Act" is handled through a complaint process. An employee who believes his or her employer is failing to protect the rights of nonsmokers as required by law sends a written and signed complaint to the Department of Health.

The department follows up with a phone call or letter to the employer, and the problem is usually resolved without further incident. The occasional case requiring further action is referred to the office of the Attorney General.

An older Rhode Island law on "Smoking in Public Places," adopted in 1977, bans smoking in theaters, libraries, museums, busses, schools, supermarkets, and hospitals unless "confined to areas separated from those used by the general public." The same law also provides that eating facilities with a capacity of 50 or more "shall have separate seating for nonsmokers and smokers."

Bars, nightclubs, and privately-sponsored social affairs are exempted. But this law is vague about enforcement.

If you are bothered by smoking in a supermarket, or if you have trouble finding the nonsmoking area in a restaurant, it is unclear where you should turn for enforcement of the law.

A bill presently before the R.I. General Assembly (88-H 9125) would establish a complaint-based enforcement mechanism like that in the "workplace" act. It would also expand the list of public places where smoking is banned to include retail stores, airports, and the enclosed areas of bus depots and railway stations.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the proposed law is its total ban on smoking in elementary and secondary schools.

Drug addiction is a major problem in Rhode Island. State and volunteer agencies are campaigning to keep young people away from drugs--in and out of school. And the legislature is once again considering harsher penalties for drug possession and distribution.

But the problem starts with cigarettes.

Few people turn to marijuana, heroin, or cocaine without using tobacco first. And 90 percent of today's smokers started before age 19; 60 percent before age 13.

The House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare held a public hearing on 88-H 9125 on March 16. The bill was opposed by the Tobacco Institute and by representatives of some teachers' unions who felt that smoking in the schools should be decided by collective bargaining.

Testifying in favor of the bill were representatives from the Department of Health, the Attorney General's office, the R.I. Lung Association, the R.I. Heart Association, the R.I. Cancer Society, and the Pawtucket

Heart Health Program. (The private associations would offer school employees and others special programs to help them stop smoking or at least to make it through the school hours without nicotine.)

One might expect that with all the public concern about drug abuse in general and the health effects of smoking in particular, reasonable laws against smoking in public places would be easily approved. But that is to overlook the power of the tobacco interests.