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Study Finds Few Unintended Consequences of Smoke-Free Law

Madison, Wisconsin - A newly published study by researchers from University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) reveals little evidence that Madison's smoke-free ordinance has had unintended, negative consequences. The research team also found that the law may be associated with a drop in smoking among college students.


The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program, looked at some of the arguments about unintended consequences of the ordinance, which took effect in 2005. During debate on the ordinance, questions were raised about whether it would increase violence, public disturbances and student house parties.


It marks the first time researchers have evaluated the effects of a smoke-free ordinance on the number of public disturbances. The study is published in the July issue of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) journal, Preventing Chronic Disease.


"We looked at police records, results of two separate surveys of undergraduate students and community members and interviews with people who would see the consequences of the ordinance firsthand, including police, bar owners, property owners and others," said School of Medicine and Public Health researcher and study lead author Amy Williamson. Hundreds of community members and UW students participated in the surveys.


Williamson said the secondary objective of the study was to identify if the law was associated with changes in smoking, drinking or bar-going behaviors and attitudes among both Madison adults and undergraduate students. She says it's the first published study of the effect of ordinances on smoking and drinking behaviors in U.S. college student populations.


The research team made a number of findings:

  • The data indicated little evidence of increased public disturbances such as house parties, intoxicated driving or disruption caused by smokers lingering outside of bars.

  • Police calls related to fights, intoxicated persons and trespassing declined more than five percent in the year following enactment of the ordinance.  

  • Interviews with professionals whose duties put them in contact with the smoke-free ordinance and its consequences showed that the ordinance did not have an effect on the number of house parties.

  • The survey of university students shows that smoking rates dropped significantly two years after the ordinance went into effect. In 2005, 23 percent of survey takers said that they had smoked within the past 30 days compared to 16 percent in 2007.

  • Students reported little change in their alcohol use between 2005 and 2007. But the rate of frequent binge drinking by students (defined as three or more times in the past two weeks) dropped from 36 percent in 2005 to 30 percent in 2007.

  • The community survey found that about 70 percent of respondents continued going to bars after the ordinance was in place.  But the percentage of bar patrons going to Madison bars dropped from 84 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2007.

"This is the first published study on the effects of a smoke-free ordinance on smoking and drinking behavior among college students, and one of only very few that studied secondary effects of such laws," said Williamson. "When you add this information to what we already know about smoke-free policies, we concluded that potential health benefits of smoke-free ordinances far outweigh potential harms."

Date Published: 06/29/2011

News tag(s):  researchcancertobaccopublic health

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Study Finds Few Unintended Consequences of Smoke-Free Law

Last updated: 06/29/2011
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