Several years ago I was in line waiting for a table at a restaurant in a mid-Atlantic state not far from New York when I heard words that seemed completely out of place yet oddly familiar: "Smoking or non-smoking?" the hostess asked to the party in front of me. A young boy tugged at his father's arm and asked, "Daddy, can we please sit in the non-smoking section today?" As an employee of the American Lung Association, I watched the exchange with particular interest, curious as to what the outcome might be. Event though the father was holding a pack of cigarettes, I remember how he looked at his young son, shrugged and then blurted out "non-smoking" to the hostess. I couldn't help but think of how this exchange wouldn't have occurred in New York, or even in Massachusetts where I lived. It served as a reminder of how NYC's Smoke-free Air Act law not only protects staff and diners -- many of whom are children -- from the dangers of secondhand smoke but also supports the many smokers who struggle to quit or cut down on the number of cigarettes they consume.
As New York City commemorates ten years of smoke-free bars and restaurants this week, it's time not just to reflect on how far we've come but look at how much we can still do to improve public health. If we want to spare the next generation from the tobacco-caused disease and death that afflicts ours, we need to renew our commitment to tobacco prevention and control so we can continue shifting attitudes and norms toward tobacco. That's when real change happens; that's when more lives are saved.
At the time of the restaurant incident, laws declaring smoke-free bars and restaurants in New York had already been in place for years and patrons just expected to enjoy smoke-free workplaces, restaurants and bars. For most of us today "smoking or non-smoking" is a question we no longer expect to be asked. People now in their 20's and 30's can't remember ever being on an airplane and seeing the "No Smoking" light go off once the plane reached proper altitude. And in just the last few years, people now think twice before lighting up in a park or at a beach because more and more of them are being made smoke-free.
Thanks to a proposal introduced in the city council last week, we have hope that it may one day be just as uncommon to see cigarettes on display in convenience stores as it is to see someone smoking in a New York restaurant. Why does passage of this tobacco proposal matter? Because we know that what we see, what we hear and what is considered normal or common has a huge impact on whether kids will smoke and whether current smokers who want to quit will succeed. Studies have shown that when our kids are exposed to tobacco marketing, they are more likely to smoke. This tobacco display proposal is exactly the type of law that has the power to change attitudes and save lives. In addition to the tobacco display restriction, Mayor Bloomberg also announced a suite of bills that would set minimum prices for tobacco products and would greatly expand penalties and enforcement for tobacco tax evasion.
In New York, despite our strong smoke-free air laws and historically low smoking rates, more than 25,000 people still die from tobacco-caused disease annually while another 2,500 deaths are attributable to secondhand smoke exposure. At the same time, Big Tobacco is spending more than $500,000 a day marketing their products to New York kids. And every day, 3,900 kids in our nation try their first cigarette, putting themselves at risk for developing an addiction that can kill them.
That's why in addition to passing the new suite of New York City tobacco control bills, we need to bolster funding for the state's tobacco control program which focuses solely on keeping kids from starting to smoke and helping smokers quit. It's a program that's been proven to work. Yet despite evidence showing the program's effectiveness and CDC's recommendation that funding be increased, New York has slashed program funding by more than 50 percent over the last several years including an additional five percent cut in this year's budget. Now must be the time to reverse course.
As we celebrate ten years of enjoying smoke-free restaurants and bars in New York and take pride our state's legacy of enacting strong smoke-free air laws, let's make a commitment to renew our position as a leader in tobacco prevention and control. Yes, we've made great progress, but we have a long way to go before we can say we've done all we can to save the next generation from the dire consequences that come with tobacco use. By investing adequately in tobacco control, implementing laws that reduce our kids' exposure to not only secondhand smoke, but also the tobacco industry's insidious marketing, and by enacting policies that ensure tobacco products are priced uniformly high; we will save more lives and see less tobacco-caused disease in the future.