Monday, September 21, 2009

A kick in the ash

Today researchers released two reports that validate the social benefits of smoking bans. By snuffing out the habit in restaurants and other public places, the often-controversial laws typically reduce heart attacks by 17% during the first year of enactment, concluded one of the studies. The other pegged the decrease at 26%.

The second study asserted that 154,000 people could be spared coronaries if a nationwide smoking ban was implemented.

Clearly the findings should steamroll the opposition to bans, a resistance that has often included restaurants. Still uncertain is how the industry will respond to this character-defining moment.

Is it going to react as it usually does, bashing the research and resorting to the black-and-white view that any burden on business is bad, anything less than a pro-business stance completely intolerable? Or will it take a more enlightened and realistic path, recognizing that many of its own members no longer embrace the sensibility that any management intrusion or strain on profits is intolerable? They no longer view issues like smoking bans, nutrition disclosure, or kids-marketing guidelines as the end of capitalism.

They’d prefer a creative accommodation of social causes, particularly when the result is an undeniable good.

Yet, even with the report pages barely creased, some industry members were lapsing into the old argument that they couldn’t survive another business-dampening measure.

This might trigger a few heart attacks, but I think the industry should drop the no-way line and instead push for a national smoking ban. One prohibition, from Maine to the westernmost Aleutians.

Fighting bans on a county-by-county or state-by-state basis is like trying to hold back the tide, especially with today’s indictment of the no-at-any-cost stance. The battle was turned long ago. The industry has to recognize that patrons who want to smoke should get takeout and climb back into their horse and buggies.

Practicalities aside, the industry would reach out to a younger constituency that can't abide the old-guard stances. They have trouble with the industry’s defense of menu items that pack thousands of calories or hundreds of salt grams. They’re sympathetic to demands that restaurants push their suppliers for more sustainable practices, from field to fork, and understand that ecological considerations have to be addressed. They'd like the industry to be a kindler, gentler employer, even if that means a higher outlay for labor.

I addressed a culinary class last Thursday and mentioned Starbucks’ health-care policy. It offers coverage to all staffers, including part-timers. Many of the students nodded their heads in agreement and admiration, as if to say, “’Bout time someone did.”

But if you think we’re about to join hands and launch into a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya,” don’t worry about needing any Purell. Instead of joining hands, make yours into a fist, and then aim it at the casino industry.

Because of the money that business generates, it has succeeded in wresting an exception to several smoking bans that affect virtually other service business. The argument can be summed up as, “Yes we did!”

That nonsense has to stop. If consumers can’t smoke in your places, they shouldn’t be allowed to smoke in casinos, either. Same with bars, airports, parks, bowling alleys, bingo halls, baseball stadiums, even churches. And restaurants should say as much, loud and clear.

If they’re going to do the right thing, do it all the way.

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