Ky. Voices: Smoke-free laws build groundwork to battle lung cancer

November 12, 2013 

  • About the authors: Dr. Mark Evers is director of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center; Ellen J. Hahn is professor and director, Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy in the UK College of Nursing.

The Markey Cancer Center's recent National Cancer Institute designation means that not only do we have the resources, talent, and opportunities to offer the best cancer treatment for citizens of Kentucky, we are firmly committed to developing programs and policies that help prevent these dreadful diseases.

Unfortunately, Kentucky has the dubious claim of ranking first in the nation for new cases of lung cancer and deaths from lung cancer. Tobacco smoke is the major cause of lung cancer, and it is linked to nearly every type of cancer as well as heart and lung diseases. And that's not only bad news for smokers — secondhand smoke causes damage to the DNA, leading to many forms of cancer including leukemia and cancers of the lung, mouth, breast, stomach, bladder and cervix. Secondhand smoke also causes heart and lung diseases.

The good news is that we can greatly reduce secondhand smoke exposure through smoke-free workplace laws. The bad news is that nonsmokers who breathe secondhand smoke at work are 25 percent more likely to get lung cancer than employees who are protected by smoke-free policies. Nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke and radon (a colorless, odorless radioactive gas) greatly increase their risk of lung cancer.

Research at the University of Kentucky shows that the comprehensive smoke-free policies at the local level in Kentucky workplaces have saved lives and money.

Since Lexington's smoke-free law went into effect, the indoor pollution levels in restaurants, bars and entertainment venues dropped 91 percent. We saw a 22 percent decline in emergency department visits for asthma — and that decline was greater in adults (24 percent) versus children (18 percent). Among women, heart attacks declined 23 percent since the 2004 law.

Smoke-free laws also have reduced smoking rates. In Fayette County, smoking by adults declined by 32 percent, while smoking rates have remained the same in other Kentucky counties without smoke-free policies.

And while many feared that going smoke-free would hurt local businesses, research has shown those fears to be unfounded. Local smoke-free laws do not hurt business in rural or urban areas of Kentucky or in Ohio, where the law is statewide.

Kentucky would save thousands of lives and billions in health care costs by protecting all of our workers by passing a statewide smoke-free workplace law with no exceptions.

This Saturday, Nov. 16, UK will be the host of the 3rd annual Free to Breathe 5K Run/Walk at Commonwealth Stadium (Freetobreathe.org). Participants will celebrate lung cancer survivors and mourn those who have succumbed to this deadly and preventable disease. While our researchers continue to work toward more effective treatments for lung cancer, the fact remains that prevention is always the best cure.

Lexington and UK's smoke- and tobacco-free policies are in place for a reason — so our citizens are truly free to breathe.


About the authors: Dr. Mark Evers is director of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center; Ellen J. Hahn is professor and director, Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy in the UK College of Nursing.

Dr. Mark Evers is director of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center; Ellen J. Hahn is professor and director, Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy in UK College of Nursing.

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