Iowa's smoke-free air law marks five-year anniversary

Sen. Janet Petersen: "I think it's changed people's every-day lives.”

Beth Krayenhagen of Denison takes a puff of her cigarette Monday, May 5, 2008 outside of the Main Library on the UI campus in Iowa City. Iowa’s smoke-free air law now marks its five-year anniversary  (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
Beth Krayenhagen of Denison takes a puff of her cigarette Monday, May 5, 2008 outside of the Main Library on the UI campus in Iowa City. Iowa’s smoke-free air law now marks its five-year anniversary  (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

DES MOINES – The every-day effects of state action in 2008 to curtail smoking in public places hit home for key proponent Sen. Janet Petersen when her kindergarten-aged child did not know what an ash tray was.

Ash trays in public places have become a scarce commodity since the Iowa Legislature passed and then-Gov. Chet Culver signed a ban on smoking in most workplaces and public areas five years ago. The statewide smoke-free Clean Indoor Air Act took effect on July 1, 2008.

“It took eight years to get that bill passed,” said Petersen, who was a state representative then. “Probably out of all the legislation I’ve worked on, that’s one that I’m most proud of because I think it’s changed people’s every-day lives.”

Christopher Squier, a professor in the University of Iowa’s Department of Pathology, Radiology & Medicine who had done research on the impact of smoking bans on cardiovascular disease, goes even farther by saying Iowa’s smoke-free law and a $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase in March 2007 have reduced hospital admissions for tobacco-related conditions and saved taxpayers millions of dollars in health-care costs.

“Those two together are probably the two greatest public health measures that have ever been enacted in the state of Iowa as measured in terms of improvements in health, reduction in disease, and savings in health-care dollars,” Squier said. “They have an enormous impact and it happened quickly.”

Two years into the new law’s implementation, Squier was part of a research team that determined there had been 17,500 fewer tobacco-related hospitalizations since the law took effect with an estimated 9,800 directly tied to smoke-free air. The average cost of a tobacco-related admission at that time was $24,500, so the reduction in admissions equated to a savings of $240 million in hospital costs alone, the researchers concluded.

Squier said it can be presumed the benefits in reducing the risk of debilitative or fatal cardiovascular disease have continued since then, especially since there was improvement in the data between year one and the second year that the new law was in place.

Not everyone was a fan of the law prohibiting smoking in nearly all enclosed workplaces, including restaurants and bars. Exemptions were made for the gambling floors in state-licensed casinos and outdoor patios or decks at bars where food is not prepared on the premises.

Opponents decried the restriction as a government-intrusion into personal choice and free enterprise that would force bars and taverns, especially in small towns and close proximity to gambling establishments, to close due to a reduction in business.

“There have been some businesses that have closed. We have certainly gotten complaints and comments and letters about that, but I also think that businesses tend to adapt very well,” said Mariannette Miller-Meeks, director of the Iowa Department of Public Health. “Many have adapted and are doing very well, but there were some that it effectively put them out of business. I believe the vast majority adapted to the law.”

Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, who voted against the 2008 smoke-free legislation, called the bill a “government over-reach, pure and simple” and believes it should be repealed, especially given that tobacco and cigarettes are legal products.

“It’s very frankly one of those deals where an individual business owner should make that decision,” said Behn. “I don’t think it was appropriate then, I don’t think it’s appropriate now. The mere fact that it’s still legal in casinos illustrates that it wasn’t about health.”

Petersen, a Des Moines Democrat, disagreed, saying part of government’s job is to protect public health “and I can’t think of a public health initiative that can save more lives than making sure people aren’t exposed to second-hand smoke in the workplace.”

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who campaigned for Congress in Iowa’s 3rd congressional district after the 2008 law took effect, said he encountered examples of bars or taverns in rural areas that closed due to the smoke-free restrictions that were particularly troublesome during winter months.

“I still believe that the system the way it was, was working. There were a lot of businesses that were smoke-free and we, as customers of these businesses, had choices whether we wanted to patronize a smoking or non-smoking business,” said Zaun, “I’m still not happy with it, although on a personal level it is nice to go into different establishments and not smell like smoke when you leave – so I’m giving you a mixed answer.”

Jim Mondanaro, owner of Fresh Food Concepts and several restaurants and bars in the Iowa City area, and said he has seen no negative economic impact as a result of the statewide smoke-free law.

“The smoke-free air law has been nothing but positive for my businesses,” noted Mondanaro. “It is better for everyone involved in the food and beverage industry – it protects the health of my workers and guests, and even prevents wear and tear on my buildings previously caused by cigarette smoke. Overall, this law has been a great success.”

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