SALT LAKE CITY — Air travelers can largely avoid secondhand smoke en route, but going in and out of airports, and to and from arriving and departing gates within those airports, might be harmful to one's health.
Five of the nation's 29 largest airports, including Salt Lake City International, allow smoking in designated areas that are accessible to the general public.
A new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that air quality in those airports is much worse than airports that ban indoor smoking completely, proving dangerous to the more than 110 million passengers who pass through the five airports each year.
In addition to Salt Lake City, other airports that allow smoking in designated areas include Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and the Denver International Airport.
"If we don't provide the smoking rooms for people, we have found that people smoke in public areas," Salt Lake airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann said. "Providing the rooms provides less exposure to secondhand smoke to the public."
Salt Lake City International Airport has five ventilated smoking rooms, one in each terminal. Gann said each is cleaned frequently and doors are being put on to further keep odors from escaping into public spaces. She said the rooms are heavily used and air quality is monitored daily.
Particulate pollution outside of the designated smoking rooms, which can cause death and disease among nonsmoking adults and children, was found to be five times higher than levels in smoke-free airports, according to the report.
Inside designated airport smoking areas, including various restaurants, bars and ventilated smoking rooms, air pollution from secondhand smoke was 23 times higher than air outside the spaces.
On his way to meet his brother in Kansas City, Boise native Randy Ostberg enjoyed a cigarette or two in one of the designated smoking rooms at the Salt Lake airport. Ostberg said he would rather not have to "make a mad dash out the door and have to go back through security" to make his next flight.
"I pay the same amount as a nonsmoker, so why shouldn't I have the rooms?" he said, adding that he expects policies will change in the near future.
"It's just what the world is coming to. You can't smoke in a park, you can't smoke on the sidewalk, you can't smoke in a line. It's just another thing they are taking away from the smokers," Ostberg said.
A 2006 surgeon general's report concluded there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.
The byproduct of smoking has been shown to cause heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults and is a known cause of sudden infant death syndrome, respiratory problems, ear infections and asthma attacks in infants and children, according to the CDC.
"The findings in today's report further confirm that ventilated smoking rooms and designated smoking areas are not effective," said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the center's Office on Smoking and Health. "Prohibiting smoking in all indoor areas is the only effective way to fully eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke."
Salt Lake resident Gladys Farmer, who was traveling Tuesday, said she would love to see the rooms go.
"I don't like the smell of smoke anywhere," she said. "If they could ban it totally, it might be a good idea."
Airport employee Karen Rasmussen said that even though she's a smoker, she understands nonsmokers' rights. She said a lot of customers ask about where they can smoke, and the designated but separately ventilated rooms seem to be a good alternative.
"I would say they do their best to keep the pollution out of the airport," Rasmussen said. "I think they do a good job to keep that to a minimum."
Gann said she wasn't aware of the agency's visit to Salt Lake City to test the air sometime between Oct. 19 and Nov. 1, and the findings reported Tuesday are different from tests done by airport officials. She said pollution levels are checked and filters are changed at the airport on a daily basis.
"It's an emotional issue, and we're well aware of that," Gann said. "We are working to find the right line down the middle for the needs of smokers and nonsmokers alike. Right now, we believe that with the information we have, we are providing a safer environment for employees with the smoking lounges than without."
Although smoking was banned on all U.S. domestic and international commercial flights through a series of federal laws adopted from 1988 to 2000, no federal policy requires airports to be smoke-free. Such designation is up to individual state, local and airport authorities.
Smoke-free policies, the report states, are the only way to eliminate involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke for airport employees and travelers of all ages.
Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba