The smoke must clear, expert says

In March 2003, New York City did it. California had already done it. Boston soon jumped on the bandwagon, as did Ireland and Italy. Now, Dallas, Minneapolis and Delaware can add themselves to the list. New Jersey’s thinking about it. Will Philly be far behind?

What they have in common—a smoking ban in public places, including bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and casinos—is hardly breaking news by now, but several City Council members in Philly have yet to embrace a similar ban.

So, as local leaders duke it out, and some business owners worry that a ban will put a damper on trade, there are many who are confident anti-smoking measures would be a good thing for the city.

“There’s no such thing as a bad smoking ban,” says Daniel Sterman, associate professor in the School of Medicine, citing lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease as just a few of the diseases that affect smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke. “For that reason, it’s a public health risk.”

Sterman should know, since his work at the Penn Lung Center brings him in touch everyday with people who suffer from the effects—either direct or indirect—of cigarette smoking. Sterman is also the director of interventional pulmonology at HUP and clinical director of the Thoracic Oncology Gene Therapy Program.

Sterman acknowledges the economic arguments against a ban, but speaking as a medical doctor, strongly favors one anyway. “Clearly the public health issues have to be paramount,” he says, especially because lighting up affects not just the smoker, but those around him or her.

Kids, he says, are especially at risk, because as we age we build up enzymes in our systems that protect us from carcinogens—cancer-causing agents that are found in smoke. Sterman explains that if someone starts smoking when they’re 24, the risk is lower than if they begin when they’re 14. “The younger you start, the greater the risk.” Philly also has a high rate of asthma—something that Sterman himself has—which can be aggravated by exposure to smoking.

Separate smoking areas in restaurants and bars are a good thing if they are properly ventilated, he says. But having to go outside in cold weather to smoke isn’t a bad thing either if it encourages people to quit, Sterman says. “Basically, you’re ostracizing yourself,” he says. “People identify you as a smoker.”

He says that it makes him sad to see young people think they’re invincible to the effects of smoking, adding that 50 percent of all cancers are preventable. When people quit smoking, they lower their risks of heart disease dramatically—in 10 years’ time, Sterman says, a former smoker’s risk will be that of a non-smoker. The risk of lung cancer will decrease, but never to zero.

Plus, there may be an economic argument to be made in favor of a ban: Since respiratory diseases are the number one reason people call out sick from work, resulting in a loss of productivity, perhaps a ban would decrease these ailments, Sterman adds. “[This might] increase production of the City of Philadelphia by decreasing sick days.”

Philly already had the dubious distinction of being noted as one of the fattest cities in the country—does it also want to be the last to pass a smoking ban, too, asks Sterman?

“I want the world to put me out of business.”

Originally published on April 14, 2005