Guest Columnist

Marking a decade of smoke-free air in Iowa

A person holds a cigarette while playing a machine at Riverside Casino and Golf Resort in Riverside on Monday, February 16, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A person holds a cigarette while playing a machine at Riverside Casino and Golf Resort in Riverside on Monday, February 16, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Hard to imagine, but only a decade ago we had smoking sections and ashtrays on tables in restaurants. Children could not enjoy a meal with their families without breathing in secondhand smoke.

All that changed on July 1, 2008, with the implementation of the Iowa Smokefree Air Act. Simply put, it prohibits smoking in nearly all indoor workplaces and some outdoor areas, which means workers as well as patrons are protected from secondhand smoke.

It was significant for me, as a longtime volunteer for the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. We worked hard to change public opinion about tobacco use. I lobbied at our state Capitol, and I wasn’t alone. People from across the state flooded ACS CAN’s Day at the Capitol that year to make sure our lawmakers knew their constituents supported the Smokefree Air Act. Hardly a day went by that our volunteers did not send emails or make phone calls to key legislators. Looking back, this effort is even more significant to me now that I am a cancer survivor myself.

But I’d be remiss if I left you with the idea that our work is done. It’s not. Sixteen percent of Iowans still smoke, and 1,300 Iowa kids become new, daily smokers every year. The American Cancer Society projects 17,000 people will be newly diagnosed with cancer this year. We continue to have an exemption to the Smokefree Air Act that allows casino patrons to smoke in gaming areas, exposing workers to an unsafe and unhealthy work environment. We have work left to do in this fight.

So, here’s our idea for how to celebrate this anniversary.

ACS CAN in Iowa is working with lawmakers to raise the tobacco tax in our state by $1.50 per pack of cigarettes during the next legislative session. At just $1.36 per pack, the current tax is 29th in the nation. Research shows a comprehensive approach is the most effective way to reduce tobacco use, including regular and significant tobacco tax increases, along with adequately funding tobacco prevention and cessation programs as well as comprehensive smoke-free laws. Increasing the tobacco tax is projected to reduce youth smoking rates by more than 16 percent and help 20,000 people currently using tobacco to finally quit.

The tax also is projected to raise $101 million in annual revenue for the state. Some of the new income would be invested in programs that help people who smoke quit and prevent kids from ever becoming addicted to tobacco. These programs have been successful in the past, and new funding would help save more lives from the known dangers of tobacco use.

While we are at it, we will continue to press legislators to eliminate the “casino loophole” and extend the protection from secondhand smoke that other employees in Iowa benefit from to everyone. Right now, casino workers still are forced to choose between their health and a paycheck, a reality that must end.

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I think of my friend Niki Rinaldi’s family as I write these words. She lives in Cedar Rapids and is a member of the state leadership board for the American Cancer Society. She recently lost her mother to cancer, a disease that also took her beloved aunt and grandmother. She has three children, ages 17, 4 and 3. She’s not just hoping for a better outcome for her children — she’s fighting for it. She volunteers to address the important issues of cancer prevention and tobacco cessation so that we as a state can do more to fight cancer.

Ten years ago, our great state made a huge step forward in public health. Let’s take another step this legislative session. Please join me in encouraging our lawmakers to raise the tobacco tax and remove the casino exemption to the Smokefree Air Act.

• Gary Streit of Cedar Rapids is a volunteer for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

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