Progress Stalls in Smoking Bans

June 28, 2016

In the ten years since the US Surgeon General's ground-breaking report on the dangers of secondhand smoke, there has been much progress--and pockets of fierce resistance to smoking bans.

Despite some significant inroads, progress in safeguarding the US public from the hazards of secondhand smoke has largely stalled in recent years.

A study published in the June 24 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates that more than 40% of the U.S. population still lack the health protections afforded by comprehensive state or local laws banning smoking.

Not a single state in the Southeast, for instance, has adopted a statewide ban. And eight states have preemption statutes that prohibit smoke-free laws.

Conducted by a group of health professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the study was released on the 10th anniversary of the influential U.S. Surgeon General’s report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke; it’s conclusion, that there “is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure” — catalyzed legislative efforts to pass smoke-free laws throughout much of the country.

In 2010, the CDC released a report assessing the progress to date in reducing exposure to secondhand smoke. That assessment examined the 2000-2010 period, during which time the number of states (including DC) with comprehensive smoke-free laws went from zero to 26. “Comprehensive laws” is defined as state statutes that prohibit smoking in indoor worksites, restaurants, and bars. At the same time, the percentage of the population protected through smoking bans, either statewide or locally (in the absence of a statewide ban), increased from 2.72% in 2000 to 47.8% in 2010.

The present study examined statistics between 2010-2015 to assess progress since the 2010 report, using two sources: the CDC’s State Activities Tracking and Evaluation database (for statewide activity) and the American Non-Smokers’ Rights Foundation database (for local regulations). The updated assessment found that an increase of just 1.8% (to 49.5%) in the proportion of protected Americans. During the 5-year period studied, just one additional state — North Dakota – had adopted a comprehensive ban. Gains, though, were achieved through localities that adopted their own bans.

In some states that lack comprehensive bans, these local actions have covered substantial portions of the population, such as in West Virginia where they protect 60.1% of the population in the workplace, restaurants, and bars.

Very significantly, in May of 2016 (following the study’s 2105 endpoint) these numbers were substantially boosted when California adopted a law eliminating all exemptions to the state’s smoke-free law, thus becoming the 28th state to earn a comprehensive ban status, and increasing the percentage of Americans deemed protected from 47.8% to nearly 60%.

Notwithstanding this achievement, significant obstacles exist to achieving universal protections throughout the U.S. due largely to strong regional disparities and legal impediments.. The authors point to these as essential areas that need to be addressed in order substantially broaden protections, as well as the need to extend smoke-free laws to electronic nicotine delivery systems and other tobacco products.