What we can learn from a smoking ban in New Orleans

american cancer society

It’s a headline that I suspect many thought would never be written, but it was — in the New Orleans Advocate: “Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans gives patrons lollipops as it introduces smoking ban.”

Six months ago, there weren’t many who thought this could happen, that the city council of New Orleans would pass, and the mayor would sign a smoke-free bar and casino ordinance in New Orleans. But pass it they did, and now it’s the law.

The lesson from this incredible feat is that when we are committed to making our lives healthier and safer we can make it happen. It may be through smoke-free legislation, or it may be through increasing tobacco taxes. But these laws and regulations make a difference for so many, from workers who work in these establishments, to those who patronize them and to those entertain us there such as the musicians in New Orleans, who were so much a part of making this happen.

However, we can’t forget that while successes are wonderful to celebrate much remains to be done. And that is why I continue to work closely with the Society’s advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) to advocate for proven tobacco control measures that will help people quit and discourage kids from ever picking up the deadly habit.

For example, in my home state of Georgia there was a momentous commitment by legislators to increase the cigarette tax. However, it was not to happen before the current legislative session recently came to a conclusion. It was an unusual confluence of factors that made it a possibility, not the least of which was a need for more revenue. Unfortunately, it appears that high-level political pressure was brought to bear, and the bill did not come to a vote. Hopefully, it will be different next year.

Other states are facing a similar funding dilemma, and they too are considering an increase in the tobacco tax as a means to close the loophole. The arguments against raising the tobacco tax include the fact that it is regressive, meaning the impact is higher on those who are least able to afford it. Or it may be an unreliable revenue source, since if such a tax works as intended as has happened elsewhere the “take” may decrease over time as people smoke less. Or they may go out of state to purchase their smokes.

Well, one might ask, is that such a bad thing? When it works as intended, fewer people smoke. Younger people find it more difficult to start smoking in the first place. Health improves, and lives are saved. States spend less money on tobacco-related medical services. My vote is clearly in favor of health and living better lives for more quality years. Is that such a difficult decision?

There are a couple of important facts that underpin this discussion. This is not theoretical. It is very real. 50 percent of the young people who start and continue smoking will die as a result of that habit. That is a huge tragedy. If we knew that one-half of the young adults who get a driver’s license would die in an auto accident, we would be appalled. But yet we continue to look the other way when it comes to tobacco.

“It’s a legal product” is a common refrain. Don’t forget: the tobacco companies are in business for one thing, namely to get as many people addicted as possible. Nothing less. Increased tobacco taxes and smoke-free regulations make it more difficult for those companies to gain a foothold in the lives of our children among others.

So a big “Hat’s Off!” to the city of New Orleans for taking a bold step. I hope others are listening, and will join the chorus of people all across the country who say enough is enough. It’s time for health to rule the day, not big tobacco.

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer, American Cancer Society. He blogs at Dr. Len’s Cancer Blog.

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