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An Anniversary Of A Public Health Achievement

We live in an age in which it seems we’re surrounded by government mendacity, incompetence, and corruption.  Of course, there are legitimate reasons we all feel that way as we see the antics at the national and state levels.

But often unseen, government does its job.  And often the legislative process can work in ways that surmount the power of industrial powers for the public good.

Such is the case of New York State’s comprehensive Clean Indoor Air Act.  Last week was the 15th anniversary of a law that has helped to dramatically improve the public’s health.  Despite the intense opposition from the tobacco industry and its front groups, on July 24, 2003 a state law was approved that prohibited smoking in most public and private indoor work areas including bars, restaurants, and bowling facilities.

The law was intended to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke among non-smokers and among employees who work in hospitality venues.  

The U.S. Surgeon General has stated that secondhand cigarette smoke was responsible for nearly 50,000 deaths nationwide annually, and is linked to increases in cancer, heart disease, and other lung diseases in adults.  In addition, secondhand tobacco smoke increases the risk for sudden infant death syndrome, low birth weight, asthma, ear infections, and other illnesses in children.

Five years ago, as part of a ten-year review of the impact of the law, the New York State Health Department estimated that in the first year after passage of the Clean Indoor Air Act there were approximately 3,800 fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks with an estimated cost savings of $56 million.

The success in passage of the law hinged on the hard work and advocacy of people like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who championed the measure in the City, which passed its law first and created momentum for a state law.  The sponsors of the legislation, then-Assemblyman Grannis and then-state Senator Fuschillo, fought hard to overcome stiff industry opposition.

But the success may not have happened if not for another of Albany’s scandals.  The evidence of the harmful effects of tobacco smoke on smokers and non-smokers alike had been widely known for years.  The tobacco industry and its allies were able to kill all previous efforts.  Yet, when internal tobacco industry documents surfaced as a result of states’ litigation against the companies, things started to change. 

In 1999, tobacco industry’s internal records showed how the companies and their lobbyists had showered legislators with illegal gifts and pumped tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to then-Governor Pataki.  As media reports began covering these revelations, and the elections of 2000 loomed, Albany responded by approving sweeping anti-tobacco changes to show that those gifts had had no effect on pro-health legislation.

If it hadn’t been for the work of dogged journalists and independent researchers, those records may not have come to light and New Yorkers lives may not have been saved.

The story is not a complete happy ending however.  Despite raising tobacco taxes as well, in recent years under the Cuomo Administration state support for programs to help smokers to quit their addiction and to keep kids from starting have been slashed by over 50 percent.

This underscores the need for public demands for health protections.  Without constant civic advocacy, public health programs are too often on the budgetary chopping block.

As New York celebrates one of its greatest public health achievements, let’s hope that enlightened policymaking expands that celebration to other worthy public health programs.

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