One of the failings of the modern-day Alabama Legislature is its refusal to pass a statewide ban on smoking in most public spaces and enclosed workplaces. Twenty-six states have chosen to protect the health of their residents against smoking and secondhand smoke. Alabama? Not so much.
Our state’s law, the Alabama Clean Indoor Air Act of 2003, tiptoes around the fringes of this health crisis. It doesn’t ban smoking in outdoor public places. It doesn’t ban smoking in restaurants. It doesn’t ban smoking in bars. Lobbying efforts by the Alabama Restaurant Association and others have worked against those who believe public health is more important than the profits of restaurant and bar owners.
Instead, the Alabama Clean Indoor Air Act of 2003 bans smoking in day-care centers, schools, polling places and hospitals — the low-hanging fruit of these discussions — and it forces cities and towns to enact local anti-smoking laws if they choose to do so, as many in Alabama have done, including Anniston, Oxford and Jacksonville.
We say all that to get to this: America’s recognition of the undisputed health risks from smoking and secondhand smoke shows what’s doubtful today may not be as insurmountable as we think.
Last week, Paul Farhi, the media critic for The Washington Post, made two stellar points about this topic on Twitter.
First, he wrote, “Something we take utterly for granted now (which we didn’t 30 or so years ago): That public places (airports, restaurants, theaters, etc.) will be smoke-free. Everywhere. The opposite used to be true. One of the great socio-medical achievements of my lifetime.”
And second, “Tobacco companies and smokers fought these restrictions, of course. ‘Controversial’ in its day. Now? Unimaginable any other way. Says something about widespread social acceptance of ideas that seem difficult at the time.”
Let’s expand that timeline out to the mid-1960s. The first U.S. surgeon general report on the health risks of smoking arrived in 1964. Arizona banned smoking in certain public spaces in 1973. In 1975, Minnesota became the first state to ban smoking in most public spaces. A hodgepodge of anti-smoking ordinances had been passed in 41 states and the District of Columbia by 1986. Twelve years later, in 1998, the landmark Big Tobacco lawsuit settlement largely ended tobacco companies’ unrestricted ability to pollute Americans’ bodies and not share in the costs of their subsequent health care.
In roughly 50 years, what seemed impossible happened. More than 80 percent of Americans are now covered by some version of anti-smoking laws in their workplaces and public spaces.
What’s next? We offer two suggestions: (1.) a nationwide campaign by law enforcement and car manufacturers to reduce the number of car-crash deaths (40,000 in 2017, the National Safety Council says); and (2.) an all-out assault on illiteracy in America, where 32 million adults can’t read, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. Nothing truly worthwhile is impossible.