By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
January 7, 2014
RALEIGH — A very controversial piece of legislation when introduced in the summer of 2009, North Carolina’s ban on smoking in restaurants and bars is now saving millions of dollars and, more importantly, saving lives. A Department of Health and Human Services report released last month just shy of the ban’s fourth birthday shows a decrease in heart attacks and asthma, improved indoor air quality, savings in healthcare costs and a positive economic impact on restaurants and hotels.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, celebrates the law’s success, while remembering its rough start.
“Some of our own constituents became frustrated with us and threatened to pull us from their giving. And a number of our Republican lawmaker friends were put off by our getting in behind this bill, as well,” Dr. Creech said.
“But I knew it was the right thing to do. I thought that we needed to show some consistency. If we’re going to warn against unsafe marketing of alcohol and its dangers to the public’s health, we certainly couldn’t turn a blind eye to the elephant in the room. Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke kill thousands every year.”
Thanks to the ban, there has been a 49 percent drop in Tar Heel workers reporting exposure to secondhand smoke in their workplace, and air quality inside restaurants and bars improved by a whopping 89 percent. Further, according to the DHHS report, average weekly emergency room visits by people experiencing heart attacks decreased by 21 percent during the ban’s first year. Over that same time, the risk of asthma related ER visits fell 7 percent.
“The law is a major public health accomplishment and will significantly reduce tobacco-related diseases and deaths in the state,” the report concluded.
Pam Seamans, executive director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health, said the DHHS report mirrors what has happened in other states with similar bans and that her organization is very pleased to see people across the state realizing the ban’s benefits. A 2012 poll showed 83 percent of respondents support the law.
The Alliance, which worked diligently to help get the law passed, has stayed active supporting the ban as it has withstood legal challenges. More recently, the coalition of organizations and individuals has supported a proposed rule change that would clarify the definition of “enclosed area” within the smoke-free law.
In August, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 which included a provision calling for the Commission for Public Health to draft an improved definition by Jan. 1, 2014. The Commission did so, giving very specific elements as to what constitutes an “enclosed area,” so that restaurants seeking to allow smoking on decks or patios could ensure that they are in compliance.
“The language clarifies the meaning of walls, side covering and openings as it relates to prohibiting exposure to secondhand smoke in enclosed areas, and can be easily applied by restaurant owners and managers across the state,” the Alliance wrote to the Commission in a sign-on letter supported by the Christian Action League.
Seamans said the Commission for Public Health’s recommendation, adopted Dec. 4, awaits action from lawmakers, who won’t be back in session until May 14.
Meanwhile, keeping people healthier with less smoke in the workplace also means keeping costs lower. Based on a benefit-cost analysis performed for the N.C. Health and Wellness Trust Fund, it’s estimated that the smoking ban will save some $4.7 million in avoidable health care costs among hospitality workers alone. Further, the decrease in heart attacks in 2010 saved between $3.3 to $4.8 million in health care expenses.
What’s equally encouraging about the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars is that it hasn’t hurt business. In fact, according to a study that compared revenue during the first year after the ban with that of the previous decade, the law has helped raise restaurant and bar income.
The N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association wrote the General Assembly in 2012 affirming that the ban has had “a positive impact on restaurant sales in North Carolina.”
“It’s not every day that a law has such a great effect on health and wellness and also economics,” said Dr. Creech. “We couldn’t be happier to have had a hand in this legislation that has made dining out safer and more enjoyable for all of us.”