New Technology Alters Second-Hand Smoke Debate ; from New York City to Washington State, Local Governments Weigh Hospital- Quality Ventilation Systems as an Alternative to Smoking Bans in Public Places

Article excerpt

Hospitals use walls of air to separate areas considered contagious. And now systems in some restaurants change the air 10 times an hour - nearly the equivalent of leaving the bedroom window open to get a cool breeze.

But can this relatively new technology eliminate the need for antismoking rules in bars and restaurants?

This question is at the heart of a lot of hot air over ventilation, as an increasing number of cities and states further tighten their antismoking rules to eliminate all smoking in public places.

Restaurant and bar owners now argue that the technology has improved enough that their facilities can now accommodate both smokers and nonsmokers. Not true, say public-health advocates, who maintain that no ventilation system can make a room safe for nonsmokers.

The argument has become part of the ongoing smoking debate in cities across the country.

This month, in New York, the city council, in a proposed bill to tighten up antismoking rules, includes a task force to determine if there are new technologies that can clean smoke-filled rooms and filter potential carcinogens. In Washington State, another bill tightening smoking rules, which recently passed the Senate, also included a task force on ventilation. And, earlier this month, the Minnesota Health Department, turning to a ventilation standard, proposed a new law requiring bars to direct smoke away from nonsmoking areas.

"The battleground for clean indoor air is shifting from economic impact to ventilation technology," says Elva Yanez of Smokeless States, a private-sector effort to support state antismoking efforts. "Second-hand smoke is the Achilles heel of the tobacco industry, and what we're seeing is a natural reaction to that reality."

Antismoking groups point to Philadelphia as an example of how task forces fit into the tobacco companies strategy. Last year, Councilman Michael Nutter tried to introduce legislation that would ban smoking in restaurants. To try to compromise with those opposed to the legislation, he agreed to a ventilation task force. The task force split right along ideological lines.

"There was total disagreement with the concepts - such as acknowledging that second-hand smoke is a health hazard - to even reach a middle ground," says Bob Finkboner, a nonvoting member of the task force and a consultant with Invensys Building Systems. "They could not even agree on the title of the report."

Still, antismoking activists say the Philadelphia task force did accomplish one thing: It took some of the momentum away from the bill, which never got out of committee.

The ventilation issue has also been successful at dividing the antismoking community. California activist Stan Glantz accuses New Yorkers of failing to notice the creation of the task force. …