RI’s indoor smoking ban marks 10 years
Supporters plan celebration, say work still needed
On March 1, 2005, Rhode Island became the seventh state to implement legislation banning the use of tobacco products in restaurants, bars and all public and private workplaces.
Now, in 2015, Tobacco Free Rhode Island is hosting a 10th-anniversary celebration to recognize and honor the legislators, business owners and advocates who were essential in securing the Public Health And Workplace Safety Act.
“We are celebrating 10 years of protecting Rhode Islanders from secondhand smoke,” said Karina Holyoak Wood, director of Tobacco Free Rhode Island. “We are happy to see that 10 years later we have a healthier state.”
One person very happy to see a healthier state is Ron Lizotte, who testified in support of the legislation 10 years ago. Fifteen years ago, doctors found a tumor on his tongue, and although Lizotte had never smoked, secondhand smoke had caused his cancer.
“Treatment, radiation and chemotherapy, were just physically devastating, and it was all because people, strangers around me, were smoking,” he said.
Lizotte became an advocate with the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association. He continues to speak with children about the adverse effects of smoking and urging them to say “no” to tobacco.
“So many people didn’t want to see the legislation in place, but our state is getting healthier all the time,” he said. “Secondhand smoke … can affect all of those close to you, even people you don’t even know.”
Dr. Patricia Nolan, who was the director of the Department of Health at the time the legislation passed, said that not only do smoke-free workplaces curb secondhand smoke exposure for the non-smoking public, but also led to many smokers taking a positive step toward quitting.
“The implementation of policies and laws changed the signals about smoking, which helped people quit and bring down the smoking rate,” Nolan said. “It highlighted the dangers and health hazards … it let people know it wasn’t a good thing to do.”
According to the Department of Health, the adult smoking rate has dropped from 23 percent in 2001 to 17.4 percent as of 2012.
Similarly, from a study done in 2012, hospitalizations for acute myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack, dropped by 28.4 percent across the state, which could have potentially saved the state more than $6 million.
Most importantly, the youth smoking rate in Rhode Island has “plummeted.” Rhode Island now has the second-lowest youth smoking rate in the country, at 8.1 percent as of 2013. Before the implementation of the smoke-free legislation, the youth smoking rate was at 35 percent.
Wood said that 10 years ago, Rhode Island decided to send a more positive message to youth by creating a “new normal.”
“We set the stage from the beginning,” she said. “When being smoke-free is the standard and smoking is seen as unhealthy, less of our children start smoking. If we can create conditions where people aren’t starting in the first place, we are making great headway towards seeing a completely smoke-free state.”
Despite, the enormous progress and good the legislation has done, 10 years ago it was extremely difficult to change opinions on smoking, and it took the hard work of various organizations and individuals to get the process moving.
Wood said that today, many take smoke-free workplaces “for granted, when just 10 years ago it was a really controversial topic.”
Nolan explained that many people felt that the legislation would interfere with smokers’ rights.
“The important part of what we were trying to do,” she said, “was show that it was more about protecting workers’ rights and the violation they were experiencing from smokers. They were being exposed to a carcinogen without really any say in the matter.”
Businesses feared they would lose customers, as Wood explained restaurants and bars were losing health-conscious customers who didn’t want to be exposed to secondhand smoke.
“We assured them that smokers made up a smaller percentage of their customers,” Wood said. “They were compromising the health of the majority of non-smoking customers, and [we argued] that this would actually be good for business, and it was.”
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who was the state’s attorney general at the time of the law’s passage, said in an email there is still a long way to go and the state needs to “recommit” itself to combating tobacco use.
“I know that in Rhode Island we will continue to build on the gains we have made until we can one day eliminate tobacco-caused death and disease once and for all,” he said.
Whitehouse said smoking still costs Rhode Island nearly $870 million each year and remains, throughout America, the leading cause of preventable deaths and disease.
An issue both Whitehouse and Nolan are concerned with now is the emergence of electronic cigarettes and other similar products. Nolan said many people are using them in the very workplaces so many fought to make smoke-free 10 years ago, something she believes sends the “wrong message.”
“Ten years ago we really changed the environment of our state,” Nolan said. “We’ve made it clear what we expect from people, smokers and non-smokers. Electronic cigarettes act as a way to promote smoking by replacing burning tobacco with an exact look-alike … It sends the idea that it’s OK.
“I’d like to think we are getting closer to eradicating smoking, but it is going to need continued commitment and investment from the state government and health department to keep doing this work,” Wood continued.
The celebration is this Thursday, March 5, in the Rhode Island Room at Johnson & Wales University Harbor View Building in Cranston, and it will run from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.tobaccofree-ri.org.