Editorial: Texas’ smoking habit costs us billions

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Stand at the intersection of public health and public policy and it won’t be long before you see a wreck. Collisions are inevitable when perceived “rights” fail to yield to the public good.

In January, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, again filed legislation that would impose a statewide ban on smoking in public places. State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, filed an identical House bill just before the Friday deadline. Previous attempts at the smoking ban ended up deader than Humphrey Bogart, but here we go again.

Ellis and Crownover filed smoking ban legislation in 2007, 2009, and 2011. Smoking ban bills passed the House in 2007 and 2011, but none of those bills ever got a vote in the Senate.

That history is either testimony to the strength of the tobacco lobby or a tightly held belief that Texans don’t need another intrusion into individual behavior. Probably both are at play here. The tobacco lobby’s power and the reluctance of people who call themselves conservatives to assent to so-called “nanny state” legislation are formidable individually, but together they are are so far unbeatable.

That doesn’t mean Ellis and Crownover are wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean that a discussion about the impact of smoking on public health and public budgets should be abandoned.

Tobacco addiction is powerful, but those who are caught in its grip shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking they have a “right” to smoke. Smoking is a choice and an expensive one. And the expense isn’t limited to the individual smoker.

Annual health care costs in Texas directly caused by smoking were $5.83 billion in 2011. Of that, Medicaid — financed by state and federal taxpayers — covered $1.6 billion. Productivity lost to smoking-related causes cost Texas businesses $6.79 billion.

Those figures, updated in December 2012, come from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, which has an obvious point of view, but even if you cut those numbers in half, the public costs of smoking are unacceptably — needlessly — high.

It doesn’t stop there. Structure fires caused by smoking kill more than 1,000 people nationwide. The impact of secondhand smoke is well documented, making the argument that smoking should be an individual choice a mighty thin one.

Individuals who don’t smoke shouldn’t have the choices of people who do imposed on them. If somebody claims a “right” to smoke, another someone can just as easily claim the right to breathe clean air.

When a smoking ban was put to a vote in 2010 in San Angelo — conservative and proud of it — it passed overwhelmingly. The Tom Green County seat is one of 32 Texas cities that have imposed restrictions on smoking in public places.

The Ellis-Crownover bills would prohibit smoking in public places, including restaurants, bars, retail establishments, sports arenas, convention centers, theaters, health care facilities and shopping malls. Smoking would also be prohibited in workplaces. Among the exemptions would be private clubs that don’t have employees.

Exemptions also include smoking rooms in hotels and motels, tobacco shops and cigar bars and outdoor patios. The exemptions seem reasonable.

One more statistic that legislators should ponder as they contemplate a vote: Only 19 percent of the Texas adult population smokes. That’s according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, so opponents will be quick to dismiss the information. Fair enough. So, go ahead and double that number and then do the electoral math.

Crass political considerations aside, the Crownover-Ellis bills deserve support because they save lives and money.

And that should be reason enough.

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