New technology alters second-hand smoke debate

From New York City to Washington State, local governments weigh hospital- quality ventilation systems as an alternative to smoking bans in public places.

Hospitals use walls of air to separate areas considered contagious. And now systems in some restaurants change the air 10 times an hour - nearly the equivalent of leaving the bedroom window open to get a cool breeze.

But can this relatively new technology eliminate the need for antismoking rules in bars and restaurants?

This question is at the heart of a lot of hot air over ventilation, as an increasing number of cities and states further tighten their antismoking rules to eliminate all smoking in public places.

Restaurant and bar owners now argue that the technology has improved enough that their facilities can now accommodate both smokers and nonsmokers. Not true, say public-health advocates, who maintain that no ventilation system can make a room safe for nonsmokers.

The argument has become part of the ongoing smoking debate in cities across the country.

This month, in New York, the city council, in a proposed bill to tighten up antismoking rules, includes a task force to determine if there are new technologies that can clean smoke-filled rooms and filter potential carcinogens. In Washington State, another bill tightening smoking rules, which recently passed the Senate, also included a task force on ventilation. And, earlier this month, the Minnesota Health Department, turning to a ventilation standard, proposed a new law requiring bars to direct smoke away from nonsmoking areas.

"The battleground for clean indoor air is shifting from economic impact to ventilation technology," says Elva Yanez of Smokeless States, a private-sector effort to support state antismoking efforts. "Second-hand smoke is the Achilles heel of the tobacco industry, and what we're seeing is a natural reaction to that reality."

Antismoking groups point to Philadelphia as an example of how task forces fit into the tobacco companies strategy. Last year, Councilman Michael Nutter tried to introduce legislation that would ban smoking in restaurants. To try to compromise with those opposed to the legislation, he agreed to a ventilation task force. The task force split right along ideological lines.

"There was total disagreement with the concepts - such as acknowledging that second-hand smoke is a health hazard - to even reach a middle ground," says Bob Finkboner, a nonvoting member of the task force and a consultant with Invensys Building Systems. "They could not even agree on the title of the report."

Still, antismoking activists say the Philadelphia task force did accomplish one thing: It took some of the momentum away from the bill, which never got out of committee.

The ventilation issue has also been successful at dividing the antismoking community. California activist Stan Glantz accuses New Yorkers of failing to notice the creation of the task force. He says the fact that the tobacco industry did not testify against the bill is troubling. "It smells like a complete rat," he says. "If they adopt the task force, it would represent a huge victory for the tobacco companies."

Mr. Glantz's criticism is a "low blow," replies Joe Cherner, head of Smoke-free Educational Services, an antitobacco advocacy group in New York. He says he has no control over the Council or the legislation, which is sponsored by Speaker Peter Vallone. "It's clearly a concession to the industry - it's not something we want."

But, the tobacco industry says it's something that's needed since many businesses have invested in new air systems since 1995, when the city banned smoking in restaurants seating more than 35 people but allowed smoking to continue in bars. Under the proposed regulation, all restaurants and their bar areas would have to snuff out smoking. Only stand-alone bars would be allowed to permit smoking.

"We think the current rules work just fine," says Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris.

A source at the city council says the task force is the result of months of discussion with both sides.

"We were told there was new technology that would get rid of the smoke and carcinogens," says the person, who insisted on anonymity. "We thought it would be good for the task force to see if it exists."

There have been big changes in the past several years, says Scott Roberts, North American sales and marketing manager for Honeywell Commercial Air Products in Niceville, Fla. He says older models would just take care of the smoke or blue haze, which accounted for about 50 percent of the problem. The new systems, he says, use almost hospital-grade particle-filtration systems that can remove viruses as well as the gas phase of the cigarette smoke. He estimates that a good system, which includes fresh outdoor air, can remove as much as 85 to 90 percent of the second-hand smoke. "It's kind of a leapfrog in technology."

Still, Mr. Roberts concedes that he can't make any health claims for the new systems. "Second-hand smoke is significantly reduced," he says, but adds, "Any amount is not good."

And, as Mr. Finkboner of the Philadelphia task force found out, it's almost impossible to prevent cigarette smoke from migrating. As people move through a bar, it clings to their clothes. As they walk from the bar to the restaurant area, they drag the smoke with them. "You can reduce the amount, but never totally eliminate it," he says. "And there are no studies on how much is acceptable."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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