Is it time for our country to go completely smoke-free?

I took my second trip to Las Vegas last weekend. When I emerged from the quiet calm and dark of the plane into the brightness of the city at 10:30 p.m., it wasn’t the late night lights that startled me. It wasn’t even the overstimulating ding of slot machines that got to me or even loud laughter of the college kids flooding the casinos over spring break. I was completely taken aback by the smoke.

How could I have forgotten about the smoke? It hangs in the air, clinging to any fresh oxygen that happens to blow inside from the strip, digs into the carpet lining the path through the tables where people eat and gamble at all hours, and hangs mercilessly on to every (and I mean every) piece of clothing worn even if you try your best to dodge secondhand smoke like a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat. By the end of day two, I felt like I’d inhaled a few packs of my own. I lost my voice, my eyes got all red, and I felt like I might be growing some kind of tumor in my lung right then and there.

I know, it’s dramatic. But so is going from your home city, one that is blissfully smoke-free, to a place where there are more people holding cigarettes than people who are not (that’s not scientific, and maybe they are just filling the buildings with enough smoke for the rest of us).

Even when my traveling companion and I escaped to the outdoor pool for fresh air and real sunlight, we were surrounded by smokers. There was just no escape. I couldn’t breathe easy until I landed back in my hometown where none of that’s allowed in public buildings, bars, or restaurants.

At one of those poolside sessions, my friend asked, “Where do we go to get a break from the smoke?”

I had no idea. The bathroom? A closet? Maybe a balcony? In Vegas, at least, it seems nonsmokers might have to seek refuge in the same hiding places smokers once snuck in their ciggies. We might just have to go into hiding, I told her, if we wanted to suck up some clean air.

That made me wonder why more of our country hasn’t already gone smoke-free. Of course, there’s controversy and lobbying and money and food service freak-outs and the big, bad tobacco industry to contend with on this. Still, only half of the United States (23 states plus the District of Columbia) have passed comprehensive smokefree laws which include a ban in restaurants and bars.

Of the 24 remaining states, several have passed comprehensive smoking bans that have not yet gone into effect, and about a half-dozen more have what is considered by the American Lung Association to be an enacted “strong law.” That still leaves a good number of states that are, as Nevada is, sitting under a haze of smoke.

Why do I care if smokers can light up in their own states, particularly if I live in somewhere smoke-free? Because I think it is a serious national health concern that 50,000 nonsmoking Americans die each year as a result to seconhand smoke exposure. I also care that third-hand smoke also impacts the health of anyone who comes into physical contact with a smoker or a smoker’s belongings, regardless of whether they have a cigarette in that moment or not.  And it’s not that I hate smokers or anything like that (in fact, some people I care about deeply are smokers). It’s just that I stand firm in believing it’s not worth the price for the rest of us.

The list of health concerns is long, but also, it’s just disgusting. I will get railed on for saying it, but you only need to open your suitcase (which will smell like the bottom of one of those ashtrays in the park, one that has never, ever been cleaned out) to get why it doesn’t bother me if you disagree. If that’s what’s on my clothes, imagine what’s being filtered through my insides.

It is possible for a whole country to shut down public smoking. England put a national ban into effect last summer, and Ireland has been smoke-free for several years. In fact, to all of the people who have their economic argument ready, know that reports show that business at pubs and restaurants in Ireland have actually improved since the ban.

Yes, I chose to go to Vegas. And I had a great time and I may just go again. Wouldn’t it be lovely, though, if the smoking issue was already cleared up there by then?

What do you think? Despite our state by state decisions, is it time for a national ban on smoking?