Congress: Tackle the Other Second-Hand Smoke

Our nation’s capital is a funny place filled with contradictions or haven’t you heard? Take protecting our public health. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration released new proposed cigarette warning labels that contain large graphic depictions of the impacts of smoking.  The new labels are the result of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that was passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 2009 (House 298 to 112; Senate 79-17).

No one can argue that diminishing our nation’s tobacco addiction through things like better warning labels is a bad thing, but I can’t help but wonder how Congress can take bold steps to protect our lungs from cigarette smoke and at the same time seek to stop the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) use of the Clean Air Act to safeguard our lungs from air pollution.

New FDA Warning Label: Is Air Pollution Next? (Image courtesy of

Just recently, Congressman Mike Ross (D-AR) started circulating a sign-on letter to his fellow House members seeking a halt to the EPA’s planned improvements to our national ozone standard as required under the Act. Ground-level ozone is the primary constituent of smog.  Similar to smoking, breathing ozone can aggravate asthma, increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis, and cause permanent lung damage. Therein lays the Washington contradiction. This is the same Mike Ross that cared enough about public health to co-sponsor the Tobacco Control Act in both 2007 and 2009. And in 2009, he joined 297 other members in voting for its passage.

Unfortunately, it seems Congressman Ross does not recognize that every day our lungs take in the second hand smoke of dirty power plants, polluting factories, and old cars.  If EPA adheres to the latest science, the health benefits to be gained from an updated, strong ozone standard are significant.  According to the EPA, lowering the ozone pollution limit from the current .75 part per billion (where Mike Ross wants it to stay) to the science-based .6 ppb is estimated to have the following benefits:

  • Preventing 9,800 more premature deaths per year;
  • Preventing 46,000 more asthma attacks per year;
  • Preventing 18,900 more emergency room and hospital visits per year;
  • Preventing 4,000 more heart attacks per year; and
  • Preventing almost 2 million missed school days per year.

So can we allow our lawmakers to pat themselves on the back for championing efforts to curb tobacco use while at the same time they fail to hold polluters responsible for the huge public health impacts they cause each year?

To a great extent the new cigarette labels are designed to prevent the personal choice of smoking and will yield significant health benefits, but Congressman Ross and others lawmakers should confront their contradictions and stand up for the Clean Air Act’s role in protecting our health. Remember, there are no warning labels that accompany each breath we take.