Protecting little lungs

Though our law in Minnesota doesn’t account for the effect of second-hand smoke on children, it should follow Maine’s example and protect our youngest citizens.

by Kelsey Kudak

Reduce, Reuse, Recyle. Stop, Drop and Roll. Just Say No.

You’re back in the fifth grade, trying not to faint and fall off metal choir bleachers as one of your classmates reads his graduation essay. Across its front, your black t-shirt vows in red script to “Resist Drugs and Alcohol.” You’ve learned that drugs are dangerous and that smoking causes cancer. The special canine that has come to your school for the event barks in accordance with your parents’ pride.

Whether we remember our D.A.R.E. education or how cool the police officer was who taught it, we do remember the phrase “just say no.” As children, we were taught that smoking is unhealthy and puts tar into our lungs – even before our adolescence, smoking was associated with cancer. Many of us have seen families crumble under the consequences of cigarettes, and cigarettes affect others who do not smoke. The Freedom to Breathe Act aimed to address this issue and has been successfully implemented, save for the emergence of “theater nights” in February and March. However, if children are taught the dangers of smoking at an early age, why are they not so protected by this law from the dangers of second-hand smoke?

Last week, a study done by the University reported an 80 percent nicotine decrease in the bodies of nonsmokers working in restaurants and bars since the smoking ban was put in place. The study, done by Dr. Dorothy Hatsukami of the University, monitored the nicotine levels of 24 students both before and several weeks after the act went into effect last fall. Of course, the results of this study are no surprise. Take away the smoke; reduce the level of nicotine in the body. It is a simple matter of cause and effect. And, as it is evident here, the focus of the act remains on bars and restaurants where older crowds congregate. But there remain areas where children – who do not have the choice to smoke – cannot avoid it.

We’ve all heard the numbers, and they have been rehashed with the new act in Minnesota: cigarettes contain over 4,000 compounds, more than 60 of which are carcinogenic, according to the American Cancer society. Second-hand smoke accounts for 35,000 deaths from heart disease annually in nonsmokers who live with individuals who smoke. Asthma has risen, as well as lung cancer. After detailed studies in 2006, the Surgeon General reported there is “no safe level of second-hand smoke” for the body, and the only way to completely protect nonsmokers from exposure is to prevent smoking inside particular buildings. Separating smokers from non-smokers and cleaning the air has been ruled ineffective in keeping nonsmokers from exposure. This study became the impetus for new policies like the law Maine passed last week. Paying particular attention to children, it bans smoking in cars with anyone under the age of 16.

While Minnesota has done well to pass the Freedom to Breathe Act, legislation like Maine’s would better protect kids from smoke. According to National Public Radio, drivers in Maine can be pulled over and fined $50 for violating the new law that was proposed by pediatric dentist, Dr. Jonthan Shenkin. While reading the Surgeon General’s report in 2006, Shenkin noted levels of second-hand smoke were generally on a downward trend. However, the levels of nicotine in children were stagnant, and they had the highest levels of nicotine overall.

Even with windows down in a car, the levels of smoke within it are 12 times higher than in a restaurant with a smoking section, and keeping a child in a car with cigarette smoke is far different than being in the presence of smoking adult in the home. Shenkin maintained that a child in a house has the capability of walking away from cigarettes. Of course, an individual – especially a child – who is strapped into a moving vehicle by a seat belt cannot possibly evade the harmful pungency of cigarettes.

Though our law in Minnesota does not account for this area of second had smoke, it should. If we all have the freedom to breathe, as the state implies, we should not ignore the other realities for those who live with smokers. Children are taught to “just say no,” and should be able to do so.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected].