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Have you ever come home after eating in a small restaurant and had to air your clothes out because someone was smoking at the bar? Wouldn't it be great if you could air your lungs out as well?

Communities across our state are debating the benefits of smoke-free restaurants and trying to respond to the dangers of secondhand smoke. Erie County has the opportunity to stand out again as a public health leader by strengthening clean indoor air policies that maintain the viability of our restaurant industry while protecting nonsmokers.

Erie County has a good clean-air law. But it could be better. Currently, smoking is not permitted in restaurant dining areas unless there's a separately ventilated smoking room. That's not a bad start. However the Clean Air Act of 1997 has one startling omission. It ignores the health of bartenders and some restaurant workers. Restaurants can allow smoking in bar areas. The bar area doesn't need to have separate ventilation. And the law doesn't cover stand-alone bars and taverns at all.

Before this law was passed, many in the bar and restaurant industry opposed it on the grounds that it would cripple their business. But the health arguments for these initiatives far outweigh the economic doom predicted by the restaurant industry -- which never materialized. In fact, the restaurant industry has thrived and many restaurant owners say their customers have thanked them for offering good dining experiences free of toxins from secondhand smoke.

Perhaps the most decisive argument for clean indoor air laws is this: It will save lives. It's a public health matter just like health codes that require strict standards on refrigeration, sanitation and cooking temperatures.

When you breathe secondhand smoke, you inhale a toxic soup of poisons and irritants. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies secondhand smoke as a "Group A" carcinogen alongside asbestos, radon, arsenic and benzene. Secondhand smoke kills 50,000 otherwise healthy nonsmokers every year. The effects are even more dangerous for children. Those exposed to secondhand smoke are at higher risk for asthma, ear infections, bronchitis, pneumonia and sudden infant death syndrome.

The public is well aware of the dangers. When we polled Erie County voters in February, an overwhelming majority -- 90 percent -- believed secondhand smoke is harmful, and a clear majority -- 68 percent -- said they prefer to be seated in nonsmoking areas of restaurants.

More than three-quarters of all New Yorkers have already decided not to smoke. Why should they have to breathe in other people's cigarette smoke just to eat out? Why should restaurant workers have to put their lives at risk to make a living?

Workers in smoking establishments have a 34 percent greater risk of lung cancer than those working in a non-smoking environment. It's estimated that in an eight-hour shift, the average bartender will inhale enough secondhand smoke to equal actually smoking more than half a pack of cigarettes.

Erie County has an opportunity to again set the standard for the rest of the state by reviewing and strengthening the Clean Indoor Air Act. Residents should demand it. We owe restaurant and tavern employees, patrons and our community at large clean indoor air so they can continue to keep their lungs healthy while enjoying the fine dining our county has to offer.

DON DISTASIO is chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society of New York and New Jersey.
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