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August 2004 Issue

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Guest Editorial

Published August 2004

Myths of the Golden Leaf:
Banning Smoking in Restaurants Will Reduce Owners' Revenues

By George Leikauf, PhD
Director, Environmental Genetics and Molecular Toxicology

"So, what's the problem with me smoking in a restaurant?"

Numbers are so large it's sometime hard to wrap your mind around them - 8.6 million ill (many unable to cross the floor without gasping for breath), 440,000 dead and $157 billion in health-related economic costs throughout the U.S. annually.

Secondhand smoke also kills. It causes lung cancer, respiratory disease and coronary heart disease in nonsmoking adults and low birth weight, ear infections and respiratory illnesses, including asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, in children.

The state with the highest smoking rate is Kentucky (33%), and Ohio (27%) isn't far behind. Half the people who smoke right now will eventually be killed by tobacco - that's about 200,000 deaths in the Cincinnati area.

Ideally, we could halve this number by aggressive educational campaigns like those in California (16%), but it takes political will. A truly massive problem for every citizen, reducing tobacco usage must be of the highest level of concern - higher than war on terrorism, fighting crime, handgun deaths, AIDS, drugs or auto accidents. This is because smoking kills more than all these causes of death combined.

"But smokers are a big part of my custumer base," say some restaurant and bar owners. "Banning smoking will ruin my business."

Take a second and do the math. Restaurant operators should consider the loss of the 67-73 percent of potential costumers who do not smoke. Because, over time, every smoking customer will chase away five nonsmoking customers.

Of course, smokers keep returning and nonsmokers do not, so restaurateurs are left with a false sense of their customer base. Note that most of the current complaints come from small business owners - "It's the little guy who always gets hurt." Historically, tobacco advocates have done an excellent job of convincing small restaurant operators that since 27-33 percent of the population smokes, going smoke-free could cost them 27-33 percent of their business.

This is well-crafted misinformation and mischievous foolishness. Because rather than complain, the majority of costumers just quietly slip away to cleaner air down the street. Operators see the returns; they do not see the departures.

Fortunately, increasing numbers of operators understand the health and financial benefits of being smoke-free. Overall, industry-wide statistics are good. Smoking bans actually have little effect on the increasing revenues on this part of the economy. The true bonus to the Little Guy is that his health will also improve, since epidemiological studies have shown that they are currently suffering from among the highest rates of smoking-related disease (like heart attacks), and these rates go down when smoking is curtailed.

"But let's be fair to the smoker, they're people too!"

Right. Personal pleasure is important in this harsh world, and we all need a little time to relax and enjoy each other's company.

This truly is a fairness issue. People who smoke have adapted to smoking bans at the office, the movies, shopping centers and many other places. They can handle a little hardship, and demonstrate every day that they can move their smoking outside. It's important that rules are established and observed everywhere. Because if it's right in the office, then it's right in the restaurant.

Smokers are fair-minded, too. So don't underestimate people's willingness to accommodate others as long as they are informed of the truth.

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