Monday Medical: Smoke-free is a breath of fresh air |

Monday Medical: Smoke-free is a breath of fresh air

Teresa Wright, MPH, CHES

Breathing easier this summer? You should be. July 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, a statewide law requiring most indoor public places* to be smoke-free.

Similar to achievements such as water fluoridation and vaccinations, smoke-free laws are an effective way to improve public health by reducing people’s exposure to secondhand smoke. About 53,000 deaths per year in the United States are caused by involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke.

“This is not about shaming the smoker. This is not even about banning smoking,” said Dr. Armando Peruga, who heads the World Health Organization’s anti-tobacco campaign. “This is about society making decisions about where to smoke and where not to smoke.”

We now know the law has had many positive effects. Workers and guests feel better. The economic impacts indicate revenues have remained the same or even increased with most businesses in Colorado.

And less smoke in the air means fewer smoking-related illnesses. After Pueblo went smoke-free in July 2003, heart attack rates dropped 27 percent in the subsequent 18 months.

However, we still have room for improvement. Although the proportion of U.S. households that are smoke-free increased from 43 percent in 1992-93 to 72 percent in 2003, the latest Surgeon General’s report indicates 60 percent of our children ages 3 to 11 continue to remain at risk. Almost three million children under the age of six breathe secondhand smoke at home at least four days per week.

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Secondhand tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, many toxic metals and poison gases – 60 of which have been identified as Class A carcinogens. These chemicals are uniquely dangerous to children’s growing bodies because children breathe two to three times more pollutants for every pound of body weight than adults do.

Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the likelihood of children suffering from ear infections, more severe asthma and bronchitis, reduced cognitive function and sudden infant death syndrome.

Some common misconceptions associated with secondhand smoke are:

– Distance Myth: In reality, there is no safe distance. Breathing even a small amount of secondhand smoke is harmful to one’s health. Because air circulates throughout your house, smoking anywhere is the same as smoking everywhere in the home.

– Ventilation Myth: You literally cannot clear the air of chemicals from secondhand smoke. It does not help to open a window or install even the most expensive air filtration system.

– Odor Myth: If a smoker cannot smell smoke, that doesn’t mean the smoke is not there. Chemicals linger for weeks in carpets, clothes and furniture.

The evidence is clear there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke. A “One Step” media campaign lets parents and adults know that stepping outside is the only way – aside from quitting – to keep kids and other people from being exposed to secondhand smoke.

There is simply not a safe way to smoke in the home or car. We know smoking in a confined space such as a car is 23 times more toxic than smoking in a house.

Today, one out of every two American citizens now lives and works in a smoke-free area. Because Colorado is part of a worldwide and national trend toward healthier living, we all experience the many benefits of a smoke-free environment. Businesses should be applauded for their cooperation and support.

Breathe deeply and say, “Thank you, Colorado!”

* In 2007 the Colorado legislature passed two bills concerning the smoke-free law. The first created an exemption for assisted living facilities so they can allow smoking in designated areas that are fully enclosed, ventilated and accessible only to residents and their guests. This change goes into effect Aug. 3, 2007. The second bill rescinded the casino exemption that was included in the initial smoke-free law. As of Jan. 1, 2008, all state-licensed casinos in Colorado will be required to be smoke-free.

Teresa Wright is a health educator at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association. She can be reached at 871-7639.