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Clouded with exemptions, Clean Indoor Air Act needs to be refreshed

Ben Schmitt
| Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

A few times a year, my wife and I step out to see a family friend pound the drums and sing in his rock band trio.

We breathe in the classic tunes, 1980s and '90s ditties and generally have a great time at a local bar/eatery that I won't single out in print.

We also breathe in mighty clouds of secondhand smoke. By midnight, every inch of our clothing smells like an inflamed carton of Camel filterless smokes.

We often end up fleeing, as close to the end of the final set as we can endure.

Our eyes burn. Our hair stinks. We're walking ashtrays in dire need of disinfectant spray.

It's not fair.

Look, I have no beef with smokers. Fire up all you want: It's your life and they're your lungs.

What irks me is Pennsylvania's so-called Clean Indoor Air Act that took effect in 2008. The reality is that in its current state, the act's loopholes make it a failure.

Lawmakers banned smoking in public buildings, restaurants and most bars, except for bars where food sales are less than or equal to 20 percent of business. That's a lot of bars. Statewide, there are 2,509 establishments with exemptions, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Allegheny County has 476 exemptions.

Across the country, 28 states completely banned smoking from bars and restaurants. Six states, including Pennsylvania, get away with bizarre, archaic escape clauses and exemptions. That's not including those establishments I've visited with full food menus that certainly appear to have food sales exceeding 20 percent.

“When the Pennsylvania law was developed, most people understood it was a compromise,” says Dr. Brian Primack, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. “It's not what we wanted from a public health perspective, but at least it was a step in the right direction. I certainly hope people realize it's time for that law to be strengthened.”

Ashtray aromas aside, there are significant health hazards from exposure to secondhand smoke. I won't bore you with statistics besides these: Since 1964, about 2.5 million nonsmokers have died from health problems caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I've talked to local smokers who don't mind puffing outside to avoid smoke-filled settings.

Dr. Lana Schumacher witnesses the effects of cigarette smoke almost daily. She's a thoracic surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital who operates on cancer-ridden lungs.

She's also originally from California, which banned smoking in all bars in the 1990s.

“Smokers have grown accustomed to the ban, without much complaining,” she said. “They go outside and smoke. There's not a downside to going completely smoke free. Many big-city areas have done this, and it hasn't been a problem.

“We're putting people at risk who don't deserve to be at risk.”

Like I said, I have no problem with those who make the personal choice to light up. I'm not judging.

Just keep your butts out of my face.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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