Putting a Face on the Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke

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PUBLIC NEWS SERVICE | GREG STOLEMYER | FEBRUARY 2, 2015

For the fifth year in a row, a bill is before state lawmakers that would prohibit smoking indoors in all workplaces and public places.

With the 2015 General Assembly resuming this week, Ed Shemelya, who retired after 30 years with the State Police, wants lawmakers to hear his story. He says when he began his career at the Pikeville Kentucky State Police post in 1979, smoking “dominated” law enforcement culture.

“I really didn’t give secondhand smoke much of a thought,” Shemelya says. “I was not a smoker and I figured as long as I don’t smoke I’m in good shape.”

But in 2001, Shemelya says he developed a sore throat he couldn’t shake. Doctors discovered a tumor on his larynx. Over the next two years he had two benign tumors removed. He says he’s speaking up to ensure similar problems don’t happen to others.

Shemelya sees himself as a “victim” of secondhand smoke.

“I’ve suffered some long-term consequences as a result, I’ve got scar tissue around my larynx, my vocal chords, that make it difficult, as you can tell right now, for me to speak over a long period of time,” he says.

According to the coalition Smoke-Free Kentucky, workers exposed to secondhand smoke increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent. The group also says Kentucky has the highest incidence of lung cancer in the nation.

Amy Barkley chairs the Smoke-Free coalition of more than 500 organizations.

“About 1,000 people in Kentucky every year die from secondhand smoke,” says Barkley. “Not from their own smoking, but from dealing with smoke usually in the workplace.”

One of the main arguments made by lawmakers against a statewide smoke-free law is the property rights of building and business owners. Shemelya says his message is simple.

“You don’t have to smoke in the workplace,” Shemelya says. “But we have to breathe everywhere we are.”

The smoke-free bill has been assigned to the House Health and Welfare Committee.

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