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It’s time for smoke-free congressional offices

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When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was elected Speaker of the House in 2015, he was facing a Democratic president, an ideological split in his own party ranks, and the onset of a presidential campaign. No surprise, then, that in an interview shortly after being elected Speaker, he said that one immediate priority was to “detoxify the environment” on Capitol Hill.

Except he wasn’t referring to legislative debates, political battles, or election season. He was talking about the stench in his new office.

{mosads}Ryan’s predecessor as Speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), left behind both a compelling political legacy and the malodorous remnants of his two pack a day habit. The air in the Speaker’s office was apparently so noxious that fresh paint and new carpets weren’t enough; an ozone machine had to be brought in to fumigate the space.

Congress was once synonymous with smoke-filled rooms. Members smoked in the House and Senate chambers and committee rooms; they even received their own personal spittoons. Gallery visitors could puff away as well. Washington, D.C. may have been built on a swamp, but Capitol Hill was a smoker’s paradise.

Fortunately, those days are long gone. In fact, smoke-free air protections on Capitol Hill have been a bipartisan success story across centuries: from 1871, when Republican Speaker James Blaine instituted Congress’ first smoke-free air policy covering the House chamber during legislative sessions and the galleries; to 2007, when Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) instituted the latest one, extending smoke-free air protections to the Speaker’s Lobby (while also ending the sale of tobacco products on the Capitol grounds). Today, nearly all areas of the Capitol complex are smoke-free.

But there’s one significant, elusive exception to the smoke-free rule: congressional members’ private offices.

It may come as a surprise that members of Congress can still light up in their offices—after all, it’s been more than a decade since the District of Columbia passed a smoke-free air law that covers indoor workplaces. But congressional offices are exempt from that law and have remained conspicuous exceptions to even the most recent congressional rules regarding smoke-free air protections.

Congress should change that.

Health experts have documented for decades that there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke, even for short periods of time. Yet for Speaker Boehner’s staff, those health hazards were unavoidable. As any Hill staffer can attest—and I’m proud to have once worn that title—the late nights and long hours in the office come standard with the job. There are more than 6,000 D.C.-based House and Senate staffers, not to mention all the constituents and advocates from across the country who come to D.C. to meet with their members of Congress; they all deserve smoke-free workplaces.

Smoke-free congressional offices would also protect staff and visitors from the harmful effects of third-hand smoke—the residual, carcinogenic components of tobacco smoke that can linger on carpets, drapes, walls, ceilings, furniture and other surfaces long after smoking has actually occurred. That’s not only good from a health standpoint, but also a win for the taxpayers; no longer will we have to foot the bill for office fumigation.

Moreover, it wouldn’t just be non-smokers who benefit from smoke-free congressional offices. Research shows that the vast majority of smokers actually want to quit, and smoke-free air policies can help them do it.

In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office released a groundbreaking report definitively linking smoking to lung cancer. That report inspired a half century’s worth of tobacco control policies at all levels: health warning labels and taxes on tobacco products, prohibiting tobacco ads on TV or radio, ending sales of tobacco products to minors, and smoke-free air policies covering workplaces, restaurants, hospitals and parks.

The results have been an unqualified success. The adult smoking rate in the United States dropped from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 15.5 percent in 2016. Between 1964 and 2014, approximately 8 million premature deaths from smoking were avoided thanks to tobacco control policies, with almost 20 years of additional life gained on average for every smoker who quit.

Yet smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. We still need big changes. The FDA should reduce nicotine rates in cigarettes to non-addictive levels. Congress should raise the federal excise tax on tobacco products. We should protect the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which has supported the remarkably successful Tips From Former Smokers campaign.

Sometimes, though, big changes can start with smaller steps. The next Speaker of the House, whoever she or he may be, faces plenty of tough decisions—but this is an easy call. Extending smoke-free air protections to congressional offices needs no new law and requires not a penny of funding; it’s also smart, simple, and has no downside. No matter the outcome of November’s elections or the results of the next Speaker’s race, Congress ought to take the final step toward cleaning up its own house. It’s time for a breath of fresh air in all congressional offices.

Adam Zimmerman is a public interest communications consultant and advocate for smoke-free air policies.

Tags Boehner cigarette smoking John Boehner Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan

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