Beginning soon, you may see something different at Salt Lake International Airport — larger groups of smokers congregating on the curb.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, we’ve gotten used to seeing them congregate in front of office buildings all over the land, in all kinds of weather. But once they appear outside the airport, you can judge for yourself whether they are more of a nuisance there or inside the five glass-enclosed cages where the airport currently keeps them on display.
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If you’re even a casual observer of the Utah Legislature, this may surprise you. SB61, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, would have outlawed designated smoking areas at the airport, but it failed. However, just because something is legal doesn’t mean you have to do it.
In a meeting with the combined Deseret News and KSL editorial boards this week, newly elected Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the smoking rooms will be gone “with or without legislation.” And she wasn’t just talking about the new airport under construction. “I think you’ll see that we’ll probably start closing at least our first one some time this summer.”
Elections matter. Former mayor Ralph Becker was adamant about keeping the rooms, saying they were a nod to the reality that some people smoke.
Before I go much farther, let me make one thing clear. The gradual cultural shift away from tolerating or accommodating cigarette smoke is a good thing. Not only does it protect us non-smokers from ill effects, it reinforces a growing societal taboo that will accelerate the time when no one acquires the habit of lighting up.
Until then, though, we are engaged in an awkward dance in which we recognize the power of addiction by not requiring people to give up their reliance on what, after all, remains a legal product, while at the same time herding them into places where they bother the rest of us as little as possible.
It’s hard to do this without seeming a bit inhumane. Sending someone with a connecting flight to a curb, forcing them to go through security checkpoints again, drives home the point in no uncertain terms. “Nuisance” is a good word to describe how society feels about the habit.
The designated smoking rooms seemed like a humane alternative, but a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 found otherwise. It looked at Salt Lake International, as well as four other large airports with smoking rooms, and compared their overall air quality with that of four similar-sized airports that didn’t have such rooms. The air at airports like ours contained four times the “respirable suspended particulates,” which is evidence of second-hand smoke, as the non-smoking airports.
“None of the smoking rooms and the ventilation and all that really panned out to be safe,” Biskupski said, “and there’s just not a good way to do it.”
Utah has had an extra hard time dealing with this issue through the years because it has concerned itself with a difficult aspect of the dance — public image. A state where most people belong to a religion that forbids smoking has not wanted to appear to be pushing religion on others.
In the early ‘90s, the Legislature struggled to pass a clean air act for this reason. Tourism would suffer, we were told. A bill finally passed in 1994, with airport exemptions, against the urging of some who wanted to at least wait until after the state secured an Olympic bid. But it turned out members of the International Olympic Committee were more concerned with things other than smoking at restaurants.
Times have changed. Now the state runs the risk of being seen as odd for having one of the few airports that lets people smoke inside.
No doubt, as some have warned, there will be those who cheat by lighting up in bathrooms or other discrete places between flights. The mayor’s suggestion that people chew gum or use a nicotine patch probably won’t be heeded.
Smokers just need to understand, if they don’t already, that society isn’t backtracking on this one, and, for them, winter connections in Utah are getting a lot colder.