Suffolk Closeup: Smoke Out

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By Karl Grossman

Suffolk County’s pioneering initiatives against smoking are, thankfully, continuing — with Dr. William Spencer, a medical doctor on the Suffolk Legislature, leading the fight and debunking the baloney of the tobacco industry. Many of the laws enacted in Suffolk County have been among the earliest anti-smoking measures in the state and nation.

The 18 members of the Suffolk Legislature recently voted unanimously to ban smoking in common areas — including halls, lobbies, courtyards, stairs, parking garages, laundry rooms, eating areas and meeting rooms — of “any property containing 10 or more dwelling units.” This is to include condominiums, senior and assisted living facilities, long-term health care facilities and apartment buildings. Also, smoking would be banned within a 50-foot radius “of all entrances and exits of such buildings” and within 50 feet “of any ventilation intake that serves an enclosed area.”

This measure was authored by Monica Martinez of Brentwood. Like Mr. Spencer, the first physician on the Suffolk Legislature, she has an unusual background for a legislator: an assistant principal of a middle school before becoming a legislator and taking a whopping $40,000 yearly salary loss.

Ms. Martinez says she drew up the bill after receiving “numerous complaints” from residents in her district “who suffer respiratory issues” and live in multiple dwellings. “People should be able to breathe freely in their own homes,” she said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone will sign the bill.

On November 19, two days after the vote on the measure, the “Great American Smokeout Day” was held in Suffolk. Participating were Mr. Bellone, Dr. Spencer and Ms. Martinez, officials of the county’s Department of Health Services — an agency that has been highly active in taking on smoking — along with representatives of the American Cancer Society of Long Island.

“Suffolk County has been a trailblazer in promoting the health and well-being of its residents and nowhere is that more important than in our tobacco control efforts,” said Mr. Bellone. “Not only are clean indoor air laws among the strictest in the nation, Suffolk County was one of the first municipalities in the nation to ban the sale of tobacco to those under the age of 19 in 2005 and age 21 this past year.”

The “Great American Smokeout Day” in Suffolk and across the U.S. is a day when smokers are encouraged to quit smoking for the day — and make a plan to quit for good.

Dr. Spencer, who authored the law raising the age to purchase tobacco products in Suffolk to 21, commented at the event: “As I know first-hand how the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle can improve mortality rates, I pledge to continue to initiate programs and legislation which encourage and support our residents in making the right choices.”

Dr. Spencer’s medical specialty is otolaryngology — that branch of medicine involving the ear, nose and throat. The latter is especially hard-hit by smoking. He is a surgeon.

He is also chief of otolaryngology at Huntington Hospital, clinical professor at Stony Brook Hospital and president of the Suffolk County Medical Society.

Dr. Spencer, of Centerport, has been a member of the Suffolk Legislature since 2012 and having him on the county’s governing body has been most valuable in the battle against smoking.

I recall in the 1980s and 1990s, a small army of representatives of the Tobacco Institute — the tobacco industry’s lobbying arm — descending on the Suffolk Legislature every time any measure having to do with smoking was considered. They denied the abundant evidence of the connection between tobacco products and cancer, heart disease and other maladies including the landmark findings by the U.S. surgeon general.

The Tobacco Institute was disbanded in 1998 as part of the U.S. government’s Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco industry. Still, lobbying by the tobacco industry of the Suffolk Legislature continued with former State Assemblyman Arthur “Jerry” Kremer of Bridgehampton representing the industry.

But with Dr. Spencer as a member of the legislature, it has had a highly knowledgeable physician cutting through the tobacco industry hogwash. Dr. Spencer notes that it has been helpful for “my colleagues on the legislature” to have him there “because I’m a physician and I can deal with the science.” His next target: more action in Suffolk on e-cigarettes — electronic nicotine delivery systems.

Smoking remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and death in the world, the nation — and Suffolk. Although smoking declined in the U.S. from 42% of adults in 1965 to 18% in 2013, 42 million U.S. adults still smoke — with smoking responsible for one in every five deaths. In Suffolk, the percentage of adults who still smoke is estimated by county health officials at 14%.

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