U study shows smoking ban reduces health risk to hospitality workers

A study showed a decrease in nicotine for nonsmokers after the ban by 80 percent.

As a bartender at Stub & Herb’s Restaurant and Bar, nonsmoker Jake Shulte feels the positive effects of the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants – literally.

Shulte said since the smoking ban took effect he believes his lungs have been healing themselves as he has “coughed stuff up.”

“At a certain point in the night my eyes used to get bloodshot and kind of teary-eyed,” he said. “But now they don’t.”

New research conducted at the University confirms Shulte is not alone in feeling healthier since smoking bans took effect.

Dr. Dorothy Hatsukami, the Forster Family professor of cancer prevention at the University, studied 24 non-smokers who were employed at restaurants, bars and bowling alleys across the state that permitted smoking before the statewide smoking ban was enacted Oct. 1, 2007.

Hatsukami tested the participants’ urine prior to the statewide ban, for nicotine and a carcinogen linked to lung cancer, then tested between four and nine weeks later, after the ban took effect.

The results showed the levels of nicotine and carcinogens in their bodies were reduced by more than 80 percent.

“We just wanted to show some concrete evidence that demonstrates the beneficial effects of the state-comprehensive smoking ban,” she said. “That, indeed when people are working in a venue that allows smoking that you do actually see an uptake in cancer-causing agents.”

Hatsukami said she was surprised with the consistency of the dramatic drop in levels across the majority of the individuals.

But not all restaurant owners believe protecting employees from exposure to secondhand smoke is reason enough to impose a smoking ban.

Todd DuPont, a principal owner of the Big 10 restaurant, said everyone’s safety can’t be legislated.

Just as coal miners or racecar drivers know the risk of their jobs, DuPont said those working in the hospitality industry knew the risk of working in a restaurant or bar that permitted smoking.

“It’s my business,” he said. “There are inherent risks in any job. You have to accept the job knowing the risks.”

Mike Mulrooney, owner of Blarney Pub & Grill, said the environment may be better for his employee’s health, but they would have worked with or without the ban.

“The employees choose to work in the establishments because they make money – good money,” he said.

Making money has been an issue for some establishments since the ban, although Big 10 hasn’t seen significant loss of business or profits, DuPont said.

“I wish legislators would be able to own their own businesses and watch government intrusion whittle away at it,” he said.

Although Mulrooney is a proponent of the smoking ban, he said the results of Hatsukami’s study are predictable and the study was “a waste of money.”

“I could have told her that before she even went through the process,” he said. “I’m sure the levels have gone down.”

But Mulrooney said there is more to the issue than whether people were exposed to secondhand smoke.

Bars and restaurants experiencing financial struggles are quick to point fingers at the smoking ban for troubles, but fail to take into account the poor economy, he said. But, at the same time, he said, you can’t just take lower nicotine levels and say the ban is great.

“It bothers me when people do either one of these things because it’s not sensible,” he said. “It’s misrepresentation of what the whole picture is.”

Some, however, believe this research provides solid scientific evidence in favor of smoking bans.

Dr. Barbara Schillo, director of research for ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce the harm tobacco causes Minnesotans, said the organization funded Hatsukami’s research to evaluate the impact the Freedom to Breathe act has had on those who work in the hospitality industry.

“This really is the first scientific evidence that we’ve had since Oct. 1 that shows that Freedom to Breathe is working,” she said.

For Shulte, a study wasn’t necessary to see the positive effects of the ban. He said other bartenders he knows have quit smoking since the ban.

“I don’t think they could’ve done it with people smoking around them at the bar,” he said.

The study helps quantify the level of exposure to those working in smoking environments, Schillo said.

“This study really helps us understand that there is real exposure going on when there is smoking in these environments,” she said. “And, that exposure is significantly reduced when those environments go smoke-free.”