This commentary by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop ran in the Herald-Leader March 12, 2004. Koop, who held the position under President Ronald Reagan, died Monday at age 96. His message on smoking is still relevant to Kentucky today.
The entire nation is watching as the Kentucky Supreme Court decides whether Lexington's smoke-free law is a matter of public health. The answer lies in the clear and indisputable scientific evidence that secondhand smoke is a killer.
We have suspected this for 40 years, since the first Surgeon General's Report in 1964, but I later issued a Surgeon General's Report that unequivocally showed the dangers to non-smokers of other people's smoke.
Based on the calculations of the finest statistical minds in the world and the World Health Organization, they have predicted that by 2025, 21 years from now, 500 million people worldwide will die of tobacco-related disease. That's a numbing figure. That is 9/11 every two hours for 21 years.
If we were to build for those victims a memorial such as the Vietnam wall, it would stretch from New Hampshire thousands of miles to Kansas City.
In 1984 as surgeon general, I called for a smoke-free society by the year 2000. I set this goal with the full knowledge of the tremendous health consequences associated with smoking. While we are still a long way from a smoke-free society, nearly 1,600 communities and seven states have passed smoke-free laws.
Secondhand smoke is no longer considered just an unpleasant side effect of cigarette smoking. It is a malignant brew of more than 4,000 chemicals that causes at least 53,000 deaths every year in the United States from cancer and heart and lung disease.
Secondhand smoke is of particular concern to workers who are unnecessarily exposed to large doses over long periods of time. All workers should have the right to work in a healthy environment free from toxic secondhand smoke.
I am outraged that tobacco interests and some policymakers in Kentucky still refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming and credible scientific evidence linking secondhand tobacco smoke to disease and death in non-smokers.
You would think that after decades of the tobacco industry hiding its lies and misdeeds that the public would say, "Enough is enough."
Where is the outrage?
When Lexington passed a smoke-free ordinance last July, I was encouraged that, perhaps, the multibillion-dollar tobacco industry's stranglehold on public health had actually begun to weaken. But the more I learn, the more I realize that it is still "dirty politics as usual" in Kentucky and many other communities across the nation.
Hiding behind local business owners, tobacco interests strategically filed a lawsuit against Lexington just days before the smoke-free law was to go into effect. Similarly, tobacco interests and their political allies are attempting to pass a state law in Frankfort that would strip away the power of local communities to adopt smoke-free policies meant to protect non-smoking workers and patrons from the known hazards of tobacco smoke.
These actions are morally reprehensible and show a disdain for health, safety and life itself.
Winston Churchill said, "Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing — after trying everything else." My hope is that the Kentucky Supreme Court and the General Assembly will do the right thing by upholding Lexington's smoke-free law and preserving local control.
Kentucky has traded public health for tobacco money for years. Isn't it time to break through the silent tobacco scandal and do the right thing?