PLATTSBURGH — Ten years ago this month, New York state legislators amended the 1989 Clean Indoor Air Act, banning people from smoking in restaurants and bars.
Since then, the Clinton County Health Department has seen a tremendous drop in substantiated complaints investigated by the Environmental Health and Safety Division.
“The original legislation (from ‘89) was expanded to protect workers (in restaurants and bars) from second-hand smoke,” said Karen Derusha, principal public-health educator for the Health Department.
“Workers in bars and restaurants had no choice (prior to 2003) than to be exposed to second-hand smoke.”
New York became the second state, after Delaware, to pass a comprehensive law that banned smoking in restaurants and bars. New York City and five southern counties had already banned smoking in those establishments before the statewide legislation.
“The 2003 amendment put a different spin on the law,” said Jim Cayea, a retired senior sanitarian for the Health Department who was instrumental in overseeing the switch to the new regulations in 2003.
The 1989 legislation put an end to smoking in the workplace, but restaurant and bar owners could set up smoking sections where customers could light up indoors.
“People in the non-smoking sections were still being affected by the smokers,” Cayea recalled. “But waitresses and bus boys had to serve those people (in the smoking sections).
“Restaurant owners were afraid they were going to lose business with this new legislation, but within 30 days, they were saying business was never better,” he added. “Nonsmokers were coming back.”
At the time of the ban, many people who were used to smoking in restaurants and bars voiced concerns about what they thought was an infringement on their rights. But most people seem to have adjusted to the new legislation.
Over the first five years of the new law, the Environmental Division substantiated 27 complaints of smoking indoors. Since 2008, it has substantiated only four complaints, with none in 2011 and two in 2012.
The Health Department’s role those first few years was focused more on education than administering the law, and that strategy paid off as the county’s businesses accepted the change.
A few establishments, such as American Legion posts, could apply for waivers for such situations as not having any non-smoking employees.
“There were a lot of restrictions to those waivers,” said Susan Thew, senior public-health sanitarian.
Few businesses in the county actually received waivers, she added.
A lot has changed in the public’s perspective on smoking over the past decade, Derusha noted.
“The public’s attitude is shifting in terms of public health and chronic-disease prevention,” she said. “You’re seeing a lot of these (smoking) bans expanding into outdoor areas.”
“People are making the commitment to tobacco-free outdoors to protect our children and youth,” added Nanette Postlethawit, program assistant for the Adirondack Tobacco Free Network.
Proponents of smoke-free public areas recognize that tobacco is extremely addictive and promote cessation programs as a form of support.
Businesses have also worked closely with the Health Department to establish smoke-free policies on company property.
“A lot of businesses worked with Jim to set up smoke-free policies,” Thew said. “We receive fewer complaints (from employees) each year.”
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