Jerry Kopel


Battles over smoking continue in the 21st century, with one side pointing out cancer deaths and illness worsened by smoking, while smoking supporters focus on freedom of choice and rights of privacy.

Most readers under thirty years might be perplexed to learn that a quarter of a century ago, smoking was permitted throughout many Colorado hospitals. A constituent wrote a letter to me in 1974. I've left the name of the hospital out because they were simply doing what other hospitals were also doing.

"A little over a year ago my wife was an emergency patient at here in Denver. A private room was not available, for love or money, and she was placed in a two-bed room. The next day she was near death with a ruptured gall bladder, and another emergency patient was placed in the same room.

"The patient was a chain smoker. My wife in a non-smoker and as she was in critical condition, then, and for the next five days after her surgery, the smoking caused her great physical pain and mental anguish, and almost tipped the scales against her survival.

"Protest to the patient did not do any good. In fact she seemed to smoke more for spite. Appeals to the doctors and hospital did no good, and they said "there was nothing they could do," legally.

"You can travel on an airliner and be seated in a non-smoking section, due to the protection of airline law. But when you are trapped as an emergency patient in a hospital, they tell you "there is nothing they can do!" It is about time this is changed and request your consideration of a state law to bring it about."

Legislators lose more battles than they win. Two other legislators introduced bills in 1975 to curb smoking in public places, and my bill, the third, was limited to hospital patient rooms. We all lost in 1975. Some of the quotes from news articles are interesting.

The Denver Post reported "Committee members who voted against the (Kopel) bill indicated they felt smoking might be even psychologically therapeutic to patients addicted to the habit." And quoting Rep. Larry Hobbs, R-Morrison, "I know a lot of people who couldn't get well if they couldn't smoke".

Even the lobbyist for the Colorado Hospital Association testified against the hospital smoking bill, saying "hospitals have enough problems already getting patients in the right place without having to worry about whether they smoke."

In 1977, the legislature finally passed SB 137 by Sen. Hugh Fowler (R) who had lost his smoking ban bill in 1975. The measure included hospitals. The most important portion allowed hospitals to legally prohibit smoking. Where hospitals continued to allow smoking, the new law provided patient rights, such as no-smoking patient rooms where possible, and no smoking by employees in patient rooms and no smoking by visitors without consent of all the patients.

While there may be stronger federal laws today, no stronger smoking language has been added to Colorado's statutes regarding hospitals in the 26 years since SB 137 passed.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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