Recently, Gov. Gary Herbert launched a clean air initiative called U-CAIR. He describes it as an education campaign to persuade individuals and families to reduce their contributions to our air quality problem.
So far so good. But in limiting his strategy to an all voluntary, slogan driven appeal for less polluting behavior from citizens, he remains ideologically pure to the pro-business and anti-regulatory fervor of the Utah Republican Party, but he sacrifices any realistic chance of making a serious dent in the problem.
Step back in time with me to put this in perspective. As a non-smoker, I vividly remember the agony of having to endure airline flights before 1973 sitting next to someone who "voluntarily" chose to smoke. Even when non-smoking sections were created, it only took one person to light up in the back of the plane and instantly every passenger could smell it and breathe it.
I remember avoiding the doctor's lounge at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1979 because the smell and breathing irritation from one "voluntarily" smoked cigarette in the room would linger for hours. When our children were young, we seldom went to restaurants because non-smoking sections provided little relief from the penetration of cigarette smoke throughout the establishment. After Las Vegas built all their over the top grandiose hotels, we only went there once. They still smelled of smoke.
I remember that libertarians advocated for the rights of smokers to exercise their freedom just as vigorously as non-smokers insisted on their right to not be exposed. But the tide turned when medical science became incontrovertible that secondhand smoke was not just annoying, it was a serious health hazard.
Fortunately, in response to that science, airlines eventually banned smoking, and during the last two decades, most states have adopted ordinances prohibiting smoking in all public venues. In a monumental advance of the cause of public health protection, no one has to tolerate someone else "voluntarily" exposing them to cigarette smoke anywhere. How we arrived at the point of protection for all of us was not by pleading for "voluntary" cooperation from smokers. We simply made it the law. We also didn't make exceptions for the rich and powerful. They couldn't smoke in our faces either.
Passing non-smoking ordinances served not only as a deterrent, but over time, their passage and community acceptance also helped educate the public about the health issue involved and transformed the attitudes of smokers. Now even smokers no longer feel like they have the right to expose others to their cigarette smoke.
Studies show that exposing healthy college students to the secondhand cigarette smoke of just one cigarette a day triggers measurable advance of atherosclerosis in their arteries.
The medical science shows that our bodies are equally sensitive to very low concentrations of community air pollution. A new study from Sweden shows that premature birth rates are even more highly correlated with community air pollution than if the pregnant mother is a smoker. Both in quantity and quality, the consequences of Wasatch Front air pollution mimics those of chronic exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke.9 comments on this story
From the perspective of public health, our air pollution should be thought of this way: All Wasatch Front residents are stuck traveling on the same plane on a flight that never ends. There should be no more inherent right to pollute the atmosphere we all breathe than there is for someone sitting in the seat next to you to light up. Our largest polluters, Rio Tinto/Kennecott and the oil refineries, should not be given the choice of cleaning up voluntarily, especially when the choice is not whether they will clean up or go out of business, but whether they will clean up and make a little less profit for their shareholders and their CEOs bonuses a little less enormous.
"Voluntary" was not enough to eliminate your breathing someone else's cigarettes, and it isn't enough to eliminate your breathing from someone else's smokestacks.
Dr. Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.