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Smoke-free advocates decry plans to build smoking rooms in new Salt Lake airport

SALT LAKE CITY — Waiting for his flight back home to Texas on Monday, Joshua Lewis lit a cigarette inside a smoking room at Salt Lake City International Airport.

Lewis said he knows how hard air travel can be for smokers, especially when airports don't provide smoking rooms. He remembered when he almost missed a flight in Minneapolis when he had to re-enter security after going outside for a smoke.

"It's a very big challenge," he said. "Traveling is stressful anyway."

That's why Lewis said he appreciates the smoking rooms in Salt Lake City's airport.

But as Lewis smoked, Maggie Podunovich waited for her flight back to Colorado in the boarding area outside of the smoking room. She said as an ex-smoker, she understands how powerful the addiction is, but she doesn't think airports should provide smoking rooms.

"I'm not condemning anybody; I just don't want to be around it," she said. "You can't smoke in a restaurant or in a bar, and you certainly can't smoke on TRAX, so no. I would not encourage it."

Pointing to public health issues, Utah smoke-free advocates are protesting the decision to include smoking rooms in design plans for the new Salt Lake City International Airport.

Scott Barton, a medical director at Molina Healthcare of Utah and chairman of the Utah Tobacco Free Alliance, says airport smoking rooms present health risks to the public and are becoming less common in large U.S. airports.

"If Salt Lake City's airport remains a smoking airport, it will be one of seven of the top 35 busiest airports that still allow smoking," Barton said. "Do we want this to be the face of Utah?"

But city and airport officials say they're planning to include smoking rooms for that exact reason — to protect travelers from secondhand smoke.

"Eliminating smoking rooms doesn't eliminate the behavior of smoking," said airport spokeswoman Bianca Shreeve. "The bottom line is that smoking is a pretty powerful addiction, and providing a place for smokers to smoke gives us the ability to control it, and that's beneficial for the traveling public in general."

The airport currently includes five smoking rooms. After construction is completed on the new terminal, which Shreeve said will break ground later this year, it will house two smoking rooms.

But Barton said Salt Lake City's airport should be following the example of other airports around the nation. He cited the American Nonsmoker's Rights Foundation, which stated in a report last month that now more than 600 U.S. airports that have become 100 percent smoke-free, including Los Angeles, Chicago O'Hare, and John F. Kennedy airports.

"Somehow these other major airports have figured it out and have gone completely smoke-free. Why not us?" Barton said.

He pointed out that there are other ways to deal with the addiction, including nicotine patches or gum.

However, Shreeve said smoke-free airports still struggle with finding stray cigarette butts, and they face operational challenges when travelers exit terminals to smoke outside and then re-enter, aggravating security lines.

"For us being a connecting hub airport where people have really short connections between flights, it may not be realistic for someone who has a smoking habit to exit the secure area," Shreeve said. "People will find a way to smoke. If we don’t provide room, they’ll find a private spot to smoke, and we definitely don’t want that."

Are smoking rooms safe?

Barton cited a 2012 Centers for Disease Control study that ventilated rooms and designated smoking areas in airports are not effective in fully eliminating exposure to secondhand smoke.

The study assessed indoor air quality at nine large U.S. airports with and without smoking rooms, including the Salt Lake City airport. It concluded air pollution levels from secondhand smoke outside the smoking areas were five times higher than levels in smoke-free airports.

Barton said he and several other health care providers met with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and airport board members last August to discourage building new smoking rooms, presenting the CDC study.

But city officials pointed to a 2013, city-conducted study that found no pollution level difference between areas near smoking rooms and more remote concourse areas. It also detected no nicotine outside of the smoking rooms and concluded the rooms effectively prevent release of smoke.

"It was an affirming study for us and certainly more localized than the CDC study," Shreeve said, explaining that the CDC's study averaged the data from all the airports and it didn't take into account Salt Lake City's unique air quality challenges.

But Barton said city leaders shouldn't ignore the CDC study.

"They can't guarantee public safety with these smoking rooms," he said. "The CDC's study clearly shows these rooms are not safe."

The decision

Barton said since meeting with Becker and airport board members last year, he's been trying to arrange another meeting, but to no avail.

"They will not meet with us. They've shut us off," he said.

Barton said he's even grown suspicious of whether big tobacco companies have had an influence on the decision. He pointed to the fact that one of the city's lobbyists, David Stewart, is also a lobbyist for Altria Client Services Inc. and its affiliates — a coalition of large tobacco companies.

But Becker's spokesman, Art Raymond, said last week that those claims are "absolutely unfounded and not relevant to the issue whatsoever."

"Who else (Stewart) works for has nothing to do with this," he said.

Raymond said the mayor supports the airport board's decision to include the smoke rooms for operational and public health reasons.

"It's a determination that's been made by airport professionals, and it's a position that Mayor Becker supports, which is not discounting the advantages that come with a smoke-free environment, but is acknowledging the reality of the challenges that face the folks who operate our airport," Raymond said.

Barton also wondered whether Salt Lake City leaders made the decision as a "moral issue" and to avoid a perception of intolerance, but Raymond refuted that idea as well.

"This isn't a moral issue for us, either," Raymond said. "It's about managing the reality of the passenger demographic in a way that best assures the health and safety of all passengers."

Barton criticized city officials for not allowing city input or a vote on the issue, but Raymond said the terminal redevelopment project has had "extensive public outreach," dating back a few years when the city held open houses and stakeholder groups to weigh in on the matter.

Raymond said city leaders considered smoke-free advocates' insights when planning the smoking rooms, but decided it would be best for traveler's interests to provide the rooms.

"Health and safety really is the primary, guiding principle for how this plan is coming together," Raymond said.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @KatieMcKellar1