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As Shane Lenz, of Tooele, puffs a cigarette before flying to New Orleans for Thanksgiving, he explains why he likes the special smoking rooms at Salt Lake City International Airport — especially since almost all other airports nationally totally ban smoking indoors.
"Say you have a quick layover. You don’t have to leave and go outside to smoke and then try to get back through security when [the line is] a thousand-people deep," he says. "And other people don’t have to walk through a cloud of smoke around the doors from smokers. When I walk by these rooms, you don’t even smell it" because of ventilation systems that pump the air outside.
But a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released Tuesday says the airport literally is sending passengers’ health up in smoke with such rooms. The airport disputes that, and contends that its system is more effective in protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke than total bans — which it says are often violated.
"The findings in today’s report further confirm that ventilated smoking rooms and designated smoking areas are not effective," said Tim McAfee, director of CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health. "Prohibiting smoking in all indoor areas is the only effective way to fully eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke."
The CDC study found that at the five large hub airports in America that still allow some smoking — in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Denver, Atlanta and Washington Dulles — air pollution levels caused by secondhand smoke are five times higher than in airports that ban smoking. Inside designated smoking areas, the pollution levels average 23 times higher.
"Research shows that separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air and ventilating buildings cannot fully eliminate secondhand smoke exposure," said Brian King, a CDC epidemiologist. "People who spend time in, pass by, clean or work near these rooms are at risk of exposure to secondhand smoke."
And the CDC says secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults, and in children can cause sudden infant death syndrome, respiratory problems, ear infections and asthma attacks. The U.S. surgeon general ruled in 2006 that no level of exposure to secondhand smoke is risk-free.
Although Congress banned smoking on all airline flights through a series of laws adopted from 1987 to 2000, no federal policy prohibits smoking in airports.
The CDC noted that while Utah law bans smoking in indoor workplaces and public areas, the law specifically exempts Salt Lake City International Airport. It even bans smoking at smaller airport terminals in the state.
"It’s been our experience that people will smoke in the public areas if they are not given a [separate] place," Barbara Gann, spokeswoman for the airport, said. "For example, employees and passengers alike will smoke in the public rest rooms, or in front of the terminals — which then causes people to walk through it."
So she said the airport believes its smoking lounges actually better protect the nonsmoking public than a total ban would.
The lounges also bring advantages to airport operations, she said. Without smoking rooms, "You are increasing security screening lines, because people will need to go out, smoke and come through screening again." Gann said that could be a problem in a hub like Salt Lake, where half of all passengers make connections.
The airport has five smoking lounges — one per concourse. Only one of the lounges has a door, but Gann said the airport is "in the process" of putting doors on the others.
She says they do not really need doors, because air is pumped directly outside and the rooms have separate heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems. Doors are being added, she said, "mostly due to the perception" that smoke may escape, and because "of the smell some people report."
Mike Zuhl, chairman of the airport board, said the topic of the smoking rooms has never come up during his five years on the board. He said the study may lead the board to discuss and reconsider them.
He notes the airport is planning to rebuild its terminals in coming years, which brings an opportunity for review and changes.
Gann said airport officials did not know the CDC was doing the study — and it must have gathered data quietly. She said officials will review the findings.
Sharon Badon, Lenz’s girlfriend from Tooele, notes the smoking rooms may have brought the city some positive publicity among smokers.
"We have such a reputation here of being super, ultra conservative. So to see this, my friends from other areas say, ‘You have this in Salt Lake City, really?’" she said. "It doesn’t fit our image."
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