Editorial: USC smoking ban sets fine example others should follow

08/22/2013 12:00 AM

08/21/2013 5:46 PM

GOVERNMENT needs an incredibly strong justification to tell people how to run their businesses and what they can and can’t do on their property. How the government runs its own programs and operates property it controls is a much different matter.

Government at any level has not only the right but we believe the duty to protect the public health and encourage healthy behavior in whatever it undertakes. That’s why we support prohibiting unhealthy foods on school lunch menus and kicking sugary sodas and junk food out of vending machines in those schools and in other government buildings.

And it’s why we commend the University of South Carolina and President Harris Pastides for extending the school’s seven-year-old smoking ban to cover the entire campus, indoors and out. This was a next logical step after the school banned smoking within 25 feet of buildings — a rule that makes all of the sense in the world, since smokers tend to congregate there, forcing non-smokers to walk through clouds of carcinogens, but that is difficult to enforce without a measuring tape.

In addition to the primary benefit of protecting students, faculty and visitors from other people’s smoke, the ban could lead some smokers to quit — and stop others from starting, particularly since 15 percent of smokers take up the deadly habit in college. Even though society has largely abandoned the idea that colleges operate in loco parentis, there’s still much to be said for helping students adopt healthy habits, and avoid unhealthy ones.

We hope other public colleges, schools, local governments and state agencies will follow USC’s lead. For that matter, we’d love for businesses to institute indoor and outdoor smoking bans. And we’d love to see the Legislature institute a total smoking ban on state-owned property.

But the unfortunate fact is that there are more pressing matters for the Legislature to address when it comes to protecting South Carolinians against the poisons that a minority of our population chooses to blow in our faces.

While we’re not convinced that the public-health case exists to require private businesses to restrict smoking in the great outdoors, there is more than ample justification for banning it in all indoor workplaces.

State law already prohibits smoking in licensed child-care centers, hospitals, nursing homes and many other health-care facilities, regardless of whether they’re public or private. That’s because children and patients often don’t have a choice whether to be in those places. Employees are in a similar situation when it comes to smoking in the workplace.

Although people certainly have the legal option of quitting if they don’t like their job conditions, our state and nation long have agreed that people shouldn’t have to choose between putting their health at risk and being unemployed. That’s why we prohibit employers from locking their employees inside the building with no means of escape; it’s why we require employers to provide bathrooms and drinking water for employees and limit employees’ exposure to potentially toxic materials and impose a host of other requirements against far less serious dangers than breathing other people’s cigarette smoke.

Second-hand smoke is a poisonous mixture of more than 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and at least 69 that cause cancer. More than 50,000 Americans die each year from second-hand-smoke-induced lung cancer and heart disease alone. Second-hand smoke also causes low birth-weight births, sudden infant death syndrome, chronic lung ailments and a host of other medical problems. The toll is particularly high in South Carolina, which has a higher exposure rate than 36 other states, with half the population reporting being exposed in a one-week snapshot.

Seven counties and 49 cities and towns in South Carolina have tired of waiting for the Legislature to face up to its responsibilities and instituted whole or partial bans on workplace smoking. They’re certainly to be commended for doing what they can to tackle this public-health threat. But that’s not good enough. The Legislature needs to quit kowtowing to cigarette companies and bar and restaurant owners, and start protecting us all.

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