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Public Opinion On "Smoke-Free" Laws Is Changing. How Will That Affect Americans' Health?

A Gallup poll released today found that for the first time ever, a majority of Americans support a ban on smoking in “all public places,” such as beaches, work sites, and restaurants. When Gallup started asking this question in 2001, only 39 percent of respondents favored smoking bans, but in ten years that number has grown to 59 percent. Increasing public support has coincided with the passage of “smoke-free” laws (which ban smoking in nearly all workplaces and public spaces, including restaurants and bars) in twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia. This new poll suggests that there may be momentum for similar efforts in the rest of the country. What impact are these laws having?

According to a 2009 meta-analysis in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the bans have been remarkably effective in improving cardiovascular health. Three scholars—David G. Meyers, John S. Neuberger, and Jianghua He of the University of Kansas School of Medicine—reviewed 11 studies on public smoking bans to examine the correlation between these bans and the incidence of acute myocardial infarction (AMI)—more commonly known as a heart attack. They found that community smoking bans “are associated with an overall 17 percent reduction in risk of AMI.” The evidence for this decrease, the authors add, is supported by a number of other beneficial outcomes, including “decreased smoking prevalence and sales of tobacco,” “improved air quality,” and “reduced environmental exposure to tobacco smoke.” The authors argue that, if their conclusions are correct, a nationwide ban could have widespread impact: Right now there are around 920,000 heart attacks annually in the United States; a nationwide ban could ultimately prevent as many as 156,400 of those each year.