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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

No more smoke screens

The Surgeon General's report on secondhand smoke removes all doubt about the need for a comprehensive statewide ban on smoking in public places in Ohio.

Opposition to a uniform smoking ban has been based on the false claim that secondhand tobacco smoke had not been proven to be a distinct enough health hazard to outlaw the practice in public places.

Similar dubious statements were used to convince Toledo voters to weaken this city's pioneering ban in November, 2004, by exempting bars, bingo halls, and the like. The issue was not health, voters were told, but loss of jobs by waitresses, bartenders, and others who supposedly would become unemployed if the measure stayed in effect.

Now, Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona has fulfilled an important public service by blowing away such smoke screens and focusing laser-like on matters of health.

"I am grateful to be here today and to be able to say unequivocally that the debate is over," Mr. Carmona said in unveiling his report. "The science is clear: secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance, but a serious health hazard that causes premature death and disease in children and nonsmoking adults."

Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the chance of heart disease and lung cancer among nonsmokers by up to 30 percent, the federal report asserted, noting that the scientific evidence piled up over the years is "indisputable." Nearly half of all nonsmoking Americans continue to be regularly exposed in some fashion, and children are especially vulnerable.

Despite these conclusions, Ohioans may be voting in the Nov. 7 election on competing proposals to deal with the problem. Both are labeled as smoking bans, but only one actually is. The genuine ban is the initiative statute supported by SmokeFreeOhio, a coalition of public health groups.

The phony ban is a constitutional amendment sponsored by the disingenuously named Smoke Less Ohio. Its sponsors come from the so-called hospitality industry - bars, restaurants, hotels, bowling centers - and businesses that profit from tobacco sales, like the tobacco industry itself, grocers, liquor, beer and wine wholesalers, and the oil industry.

The danger of Smoke Less Ohio is that it would institutionalize the presence of deadly secondhand smoke in the lives of Ohioans by prohibiting the legislature from ever passing any laws to protect workers or customers of a broad range of excepted establishments from tobacco-smoke exposure.

Moreover, it would negate 21 smoking ordinances already approved by local governments.

We won't know until early August whether either or both of these issues will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot, but voters need to be forewarned.

The Surgeon General's report, meanwhile, points up the need for a smoking ban that will be uniform across city, township, and county boundaries, both because it would not allow pockets of unfair competition and because, as the report states, the only way to protect nonsmokers from the carcinogenic effects is to eliminate smoking indoors.

No one has suggested banning smoking in private homes or cars, but the message of the report is clear from a public health standpoint: Smokers should not be allowed to spread their deadly haze to the lungs of those who don't wish to breathe it.

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