Staff Columnist

Iowa's smoking ban was never about protecting workers

In 10 years since 'Smokefree Air Act,' research on secondhand smoke has changed

A sign informing park users that it is illegal to smoke at Thomas Park is posted near the entrance to the park in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, July 30, 2015. A smoking ban in parks and biking trails in the city takes effect Saturday, August 1. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A sign informing park users that it is illegal to smoke at Thomas Park is posted near the entrance to the park in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, July 30, 2015. A smoking ban in parks and biking trails in the city takes effect Saturday, August 1. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Ten years in, public health advocates are calling Iowa’s smoking ban a success.

Iowa’s Smokefree Air Act was signed by then-Gov. Chet Culver in 2008, effectively banning the use of cigarettes in most of the state’s businesses and public facilities.

Iowans were persuaded by research showing secondhand smoke is detrimental to health. For years, the danger of secondhand smoke was beyond all reasonable doubt. However, newer research is raising skepticism about the threat posed by secondhand smoke, and the effectiveness of smoking bans like Iowa’s.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute — which has a long-standing bias against tobacco use — found “no link” between lung cancer and passive smoking. One of the largest research projects of its kind, the study found smokers are 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer, but among non-smokers, no statistically significant increase in lung cancer could be found.

Previous studies showing a connection between secondhand smoke and lung cancer were case-control studies, meaning they rely on the research subject’s own reporting. If people are told secondhand smoke causes cancer and then they develop cancer, they’re more likely to report exposure to tobacco smoke.

Other research has drawn a connection between smoking restrictions and heart attacks, with some analysts finding as much as a 40 percent reduction in heart attacks in communities with smoking bans.

However, that hypothesis doesn’t hold up when it’s tested on a wider basis. A 2014 study in the American Journal of Medicine found heart attack reductions under anti-smoking ordinances could be attributed to existing trends. “No significant impact of smoke-free legislation was demonstrated,” researchers wrote.

Nonetheless, the crusade against public smoking has been perhaps the most successful public policy campaign of the last decade. The American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation reports there are now more than 5,500 jurisdictions around the country with smoke-free air laws and ordinances in place.

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Back in 2008, the most effective argument for the law was to protect workers from secondhand smoke in places which allowed smoking. A decade later, we see the true goal was to infringe on personal choice by making it ever more inconvenient to use tobacco products.

Last year, the Iowa City Council imposed an ordinance to ban use of all tobacco products at local parks. Cedar Rapids city officials are now considering a ban on smoking in parks. All this, even though there is no reliable evidence showing smoking outside is hazardous to other people’s health. The same goes for e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco, which Iowa City’s ordinance also outlawed.

It’s highly unlikely Iowa will roll back its smoking restrictions in light of new research. Yet tobacco control highlights a broader issue with public policy — Americans are eager to believe bad things about people they don’t like.

The smoker’s lobby has lost this fight, but other groups too could be victims of the academic-regulatory complex. You might be next.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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