Moms

Your freedom to smoke ends where my lungs begin

Jeff MacNelly liked his cigars.

Me, not so much. At least I didn't appreciate smelling like an ashtray when I left the office and having to dry clean jackets with every wearing to get rid of the odor.

MacNelly, may he rest in peace, was an incomparable editorial cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Shoe. In those days, he had an office in the middle of the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau, and there was a period when he and a colleague would often retreat there after lunch to indulge in cigars. They usually closed the door, but the air circulation in the bureau all but put me in there with them: the smell seemed to collect right at my corner desk and in my clothes and hair.

It was sort of like the old days on airplanes: you could put the smokers at the back, but you were kidding yourself if you thought passengers toward the front were not absorbing the fumes.

I didn't want to complain, really. MacNelly was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a truly nice guy, and I was a correspondent with nowhere near that stature. I liked, respected and got along very fine with my colleagues.

But I also didn't want to be inhaling secondhand smoke every day while pregnant, which I expected to be before long.

So I went to the bureau chief and asked to have smoking banned from the office.

It might seem like a cowardly way to go about it, and I still feel sort of sheepish though almost 20 years have passed. But that kind of restriction on employees' personal freedom needed to come from someone in position of authority in the company.

Since then, many businesses have sent smokers outside for their breaks, and a growing number of cities and states have done it by law.

Now, we have the Texas Legislature talking about statewide smoking bans in workplaces and public places, and there's certain to be a ruckus over personal rights and government intrusion and how far we should be willing to go to protect public health.

State Rep. Myra Crownover, a Denton Republican, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, have filed nearly identical bills (HB670 and SB355) aiming to purge secondhand smoke by banishing firsthand smoke. The legislation would pre-empt local smoking ordinances and affect most places the public can go, including restaurants, bars, shopping malls, convention centers, theaters, hospitals, residential building common areas, taxis, train waiting areas and sports arena seats.

In a news release, Crownover said that, based on a Texas Department of State Health Services analysis, about 30 million in Medicaid dollars over two years could be saved if a smoking ban reduced hospitalizations due to smoking-related heart attacks, strokes and respiratory illness.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says secondhand smoke causes an estimated 46,000 heart disease and 3,400 lung cancer deaths a year in adult nonsmokers nationwide (tinyurl.com/sechand).

That's because those exposed to others' tobacco habit still take in at least 250 toxic chemicals, more than 50 of them cancer-causing.

"There is no risk-free level of contact with secondhand smoke," the CDC says.

The agency also reports that secondhand exposure has decreased over the past 20 years, mainly because of smoking bans in workplaces and public places, along with more homes not allowing tobacco. But millions of people still have to inhale other people's carcinogens, either because they're children living with smokers or they work in bars, restaurants, offices or business sites where smoking's still tolerated.

There most certainly are competing interests involved. But I can't help tipping toward the greater good of better health for individuals and the general public.

Most people understand the concept that your freedom ends where my face begins. When smokers can't keep their fumes to themselves, maybe the state needs to do it for them.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.

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