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WE ALL HAVE THE RIGHT TO BREATHE SMOKE-FREE AIR

In the News article, "Waiting to inhale," Jane Kwiatkowski documented the great lengths that people will go to to smoke. She wrote that blizzard warnings, freezing rain, ice and snow are not enough to deter smokers from getting their fix.

While I enjoyed the light-hearted tone, I must disagree with her on one point. She wrote that Erie County's clean indoor-air laws have forced smokers into the cold. The article painted a tongue-in-cheek picture of smokers as hearty folk, braving the winter weather to enjoy a puff of their freedom. The sad truth is that smokers are anything but free, and it isn't due to clean-air laws.

Cigarettes have been found to be more addictive than heroin. Lifelong smokers need to brave the elements not because they want to, but because they have to. Smokers aren't powerless because of the law, as one woman suggested. Smokers are powerless because they are chemically dependent on nicotine and other properties that tobacco companies inject into cigarettes. Smokers aren't the victims of clean-air legislation; they're the victims of corporations whose only concern is that you smoke until you die.

How sad is it to hear that with all of the information that is readily available on the dangers of tobacco, men and women will still stand out in the cold to poison themselves?

How disturbing is it to know that a 23-year-old man would say that he doesn't need his lungs anymore? I would suggest that he spend some time with a lung cancer patient or chat with someone fighting emphysema.

However, the real question raised is whom does the county's Clean Air Act affect most? I submit that the smokers on the sidewalk do not feel the law's greatest impact. Studies have shown that strong clean-air legislation saves lives. They encourage smokers to quit and protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. The Centers for Disease Control recently studied the effectiveness of California's tough anti-smoking measures, and the results are encouraging. The CDC concluded that California's clean-air laws have led to lower smoking rates and fewer deadly cases of cancer related to smoking. Just as there is a clear link between tobacco use and lung cancer, there is a clear link between clean-air laws and mortality rates.

Erie County's Clean Air Act is saving lives. Each year, secondhand smoke kills up to 43,000 nonsmokers from heart disease and lung cancer. This law reduces your exposure to secondhand smoke and stops you from breathing in the more than 4,000 substances (40 of which are known or suspected to cause cancer) found in other people's cigarette smoke.

Both sides of the debate continue to argue that the issue of secondhand smoke is about rights. People who smoke say it is their right to do so and that laws, such as the Clean Air Act, treat smokers as second-class citizens.

"Your perfume might bother me, but you're not discriminated against," said one smoker. But no one has died of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand perfume.

This is not an issue of convenience or taxes. We at the American Cancer Society agree that this is an issue of rights. But we believe that people have the right to breathe smoke-free air and to determine for themselves what to put in their lungs.

GRETCHEN LEFFLER is western regional executive of the American Cancer Society.

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