By Michael Howell
Lindsay Stover of Tobacco Free Ravalli County got a favorable hearing before the County Commissioners last week when she asked them to consider implementing a tobacco-free policy that would prohibit all forms of tobacco products and the use of these products, including e-cigarettes, on the grounds or in any of the buildings owned by Ravalli County.
Stover marshaled a lot of statistics that support the implementation of such a policy, such as the fact that 1,400 Montanans die every year from tobacco use. Between the years 2004 and 2009, 10,798 Montanans died from tobacco use.
“Four hundred and sixty people in Ravalli County alone died from tobacco use during that period,” said Stover. Tobacco use kills more than twice as many individuals as alcohol abuse, motor vehicle accidents, suicide, homicide, illicit drug use, HIV/AIDS, and fires combined.
Another 150 Montanans die from the effects of second-hand smoke annually. According to the US Surgeon General, Stover told the Commissioners, there is no safe level of second-hand smoke.
The annual costs in direct medical care in the U.S. related to tobacco caused health issues is estimated at $5 billion annually with another $5 billion in indirect costs. In Montana it amounts to $582 million annually – $277 million in excess medical costs and $305 million annually in lost productivity.
Stover told the Commissioners that a tobacco-free workplace leads to a healthier workforce. She said it can decrease health care costs per employee and increase productivity. Studies have shown that employees who use tobacco have twice the lost production time per week for personal health reasons than workers who never use tobacco. Smoking breaks also decrease worker productivity.
A tobacco-free policy keeps co-workers and visitors from being exposed to third-hand smoke, which contains just as many cancer causing chemicals as second-hand smoke, according to Stover. Cigarettes and spit tobacco waste both contain lead, arsenic, cadmium, formaldehyde, polonium-210, along with 7,000 other chemicals that can get into the soil, water systems and air, affecting everyone.
Stover made a strong argument for prohibiting all forms of tobacco, not just smoking. She said a smoke-free ban could increase the use of other types of tobacco, such as chewing tobacco. But spit tobacco, she said, is just as harmful, spreading the same harmful chemicals as smoke tobacco and affecting other people as well.
“Allowing smokeless tobacco implies that it is okay for people to harm themselves and others with chew tobacco,” she said. “It gives the impression that chew tobacco is safer when it is not.” She said a tobacco-free policy eliminates confusion among staff and visitors and sends a clear message to the community that tobacco use is not safe.
Secondary benefits to the policy include litter reduction by the elimination of cigarette butts from the area, visitors will not see a crowd of people smoking on the front steps of the county building, and there will be less spit on the sidewalks and in the parking lots. It can also reduce the county’s liability. Stover said that non-smokers harmed by second hand smoke at work have won lawsuits and disability claims against their employers. A tobacco-free policy also reduces the risk of fire and may lead to decreases in insurance costs.
Human Resource Director Robert Jenni estimated that 25 to 30 county employees were smokers. He suggested that if the commissioners adopted a tobacco-free policy they should consider phasing it in in such a way that smokers could adapt and possibly quit before it is implemented.
“Smokers are not going to like this,” said Jenni.
“Of course not,” said Commissioner J.R. Iman. “It’s an addiction.”
Commissioner Suzy Foss said that it was not just smokers who are being affected, it’s also non-smokers being affected by second-hand and third-hand smoke. She indicated support for the policy.
Iman said jokingly that he could support a phase-in process if they wanted to wait until Friday before implementing it.
Commission Chair Jeff Burrows expressed concern that if the County went smoke-free, the problem would simply be moved across the street where crowds of smokers would congregate on the sidewalk. Burrows also expressed concern that breaks were being abused by some smokers, one of whom he recently observed smoking on the steps multiple times during the day. He suggested that they consider a uniform schedule for employee breaks in each department.
The Commissioners were in consensus that a policy should be drafted and submitted for consideration by the Board. Commissioner Greg Chilcott, who does chew tobacco, was out of town and did not participate in the discussion.