I am a restaurant worker and have been for 18 years, the past eight of those as a waitress in Steamboat Springs. I rely on the hospitality industry to make ends meet.
Like any worker who has bills to pay, I need my hospitality industry job to pay my mortgage and monthly bills. But I am not afforded the same level of health protection on the job that most other workers have.
On Jan. 18, I spoke to the Steamboat City Council on behalf of SmokeFree Steamboat, a coalition of local residents who envision a community where residents, workers and visitors can work and play free from the negative health effects of secondhand smoke.
Fifty-three thousand nonsmoking Americans die every year from diseases directly related to secondhand smoke exposure. I don't smoke by choice; however, I involuntarily inhale the equivalent of one to two packs of cigarettes every eight-hour shift I work.
Secondhand Smoke (like asbestos, radon, benzene and mustard gas) is a Class A carcinogen that causes cancer in humans. The hospitality industry stands alone as the last workplace permitting unprotected exposure to a Class A carcinogen.
Although restaurant and bar workers are required to follow federal and state hygiene and safety standards that protect the health and well-being of the public they serve, those working in establishments that allow smoking are not afforded the same level of protection. Workers in bars, bingo parlors and bowling alleys are exposed to secondhand smoke that is 18 times higher than the exposure to professional and office workers. Waitresses die from higher rates of lung cancer and heart disease than any other female occupation group.
Bartenders have lung cancer rates higher than miners, firefighters, duct workers and dry cleaners. And all workers exposed to the hazards of secondhand smoke on the job are 34 percent more likely to get lung cancer. Do hospitality industry employees have different or less important lungs than office workers? I don't think so. Do we deserve less protection at our places of employment? No.
Of the people in our state, 81 percent are nonsmokers and in our county -- that number rises to 89 percent. When dining out, nearly one-third of smokers ask to be seated in nonsmoking sections. Nearly two-thirds of households with adult smokers have banned smoking in the home, and smokers routinely say that they try to respect nonsmokers by asking permission to smoke around them or by taking extra measure (such as smoking outside) not to bother them with their smoke.
I'm asked every day at work why Steamboat Springs is not smoke-free and my reply -- we should be. Many towns and counties across Colorado already have addressed this important public health issue. Boulder and Boulder County, Breckenridge, Dillon, Fort Collins, Frisco, Greeley, Longmont, Louisville, Pueblo, Silverthorne, Snowmass Village, Summit County, Alamosa, Arvada, Aspen, Broomfield, Firestone, Pitkin County, Superior, Telluride, Grand Junction and Montrose all have strong smoke free ordinances in place that are protecting their workers.
It's time for Steamboat to add its name to the list.