With more than 3,000 employees and 156 offices nationwide, the American Heart Association (AHA) is the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. AHA’s mission is to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. That single purpose drives all the association does, including funding innovative research, fighting for stronger public health policies and providing critical tools and information that save and improve lives.
AHA also plays an active role in the federal legislative and regulatory arenas, including promoting policies that prevent and reduce tobacco use and protect non-smokers from exposure to secondhand smoke (SHS). The American Heart Association was a leading advocate for the landmark 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which for the first time granted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate the manufacture, distribution, sale, labeling, advertising and promotion of tobacco products to protect public health. AHA’s state and federal advocacy activities continue to prioritize the reduction and prevention of tobacco use on numerous fronts: comprehensive smoke-free laws, tobacco excise taxes, increased funding for tobacco cessation and prevention programs, FDA regulation of newer tobacco products like e-cigarettes and evidence-based tobacco cessation coverage in private/public healthcare plans.
Building Tobacco-Free Communities
Although adult smoking rates declined from approximately 42 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2013, roughly 42 million adults still smoke.1 In the workplace, smoke-free policies have dramatically reduced exposure to second-hand smoke, however, one in five non-smoking working adults are still exposed to SHS smoke at least one day a week.2 There is no safe level of exposure to SHS. In fact, SHS exposure causes more than 41,000 deaths a year among non-smokers3 and increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer up to 30 percent.4
Employees who smoke take more sick days each year compared to non-smokers, and non-smoking employees exposed to SHS have higher medical costs due to smoke-related illnesses. The risks of exposure to SHS are even greater for workers in the hospitality industry, who often have to inhale smoke over their entire work shifts.
Because AHA is a highly visible organization to volunteers, donors, the medical community, the media and the public—and because of the driving force of the mission—the Association has a strict tobacco-free policy for all AHA buildings, whether leased or owned. Additionally, the use of tobacco products or smoking in any form is prohibited during the sessions of any meeting, conference, seminar or assembly being held under the sponsorship of AHA regardless of location, or when otherwise representing AHA.
AHA has long advocated for laws that require all indoor workplaces and public places to be smoke-free. The Association’s advocacy is based on the research that shows the immediate negative health effects of SHS on acute cardiovascular events. Therefore, it is against the association’s values and mission to hold events in venues that expose attendees and/or employees to SHS.
Creating a Smoke-Free Meeting Policy
In 2014, AHA implemented a more stringent smoke-free meeting policy that requires all AHA meetings be held in smoke-free venues (effective December 31, 2014) and in communities with comprehensive smoke-free laws that cover restaurants and bars (effective July 1, 2017). This policy covers any meeting, conference, seminar or assembly being held under AHA sponsorship, and on all Association premises. The previous policy did not specifically require that meetings be held in smoke-free venues or smoke-free communities.
The new policy also extended the smoke-free requirement to local events, whereas the previous policy simply stated that reasonable efforts should be made to conduct events in smoke-free communities or in venues with smoke-free policies. AHA wanted the policy to be consistent across the entire organization in order to protect AHA volunteers and staff.
Exceptions to this policy may be granted under special circumstances, but require the highest levels of approval. If it is impractical to host a national or local event in a smoke-free community, the responsible Executive Vice President (EVP) is required to analyze and substantiate the claim, reporting these special circumstances to the General Counsel, who will notify the CEO and Chairman of the Board. The Chairman and CEO, at their discretion, may overrule the EVP’s decision.
AHA implemented the new policy during the fall of 2014 using multiple communication strategies, which included two national webinars offered to all AHA staff, separate calls with the AHA’s National Meetings team and direct calls with Affiliate staff. Technical assistance resources, including a decision flowchart, were made available on the company intranet.
Despite the short implementation period to date, there have been relatively few exceptions granted. However, many states, including Texas (where AHA is headquartered), do not have smoke-free laws that meet AHA’s standards. Consequently, some Dallas-based meetings have relocated 20-30 minutes north to Plano, which implemented the Plano Smokefree Regulation in 2007, restricting smoking in all public places (including restaurants and bars) and all places of employment. The regulation was amended in 2014 to include the use of e-cigarettes, vaping and all other electronic vaping devices. Despite these challenges, as a science-based and mission-driven organization, AHA remains committed to ensuring that its staff, volunteers and guests are not exposed to second hand smoke at its meetings.
In addition, the AHA’s smoke-free meeting policy helped influence the New Orleans city council to pass a strong smoke-free law in January 2015. Shortly after the meeting policy was adopted, AHA staff met with the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and city council members to tell them AHA would no longer bring conferences to the city unless a strong smoke-free law was adopted. The loss of conferences was cited numerous times by council members during the debate of the ordinance. The new smoke-free law, which requires all restaurants, bars and casinos to be smoke-free went into effect on April 22, 2015.
- CDC. Current smoking among adults – United States, 2005-2013. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6347a4.htm
- King et al (2015). Exposure to secondhand smoke and attitudes to smoke-free workplaces among employed US adults: findings from the National Adult Tobacco Survey. Nicotine Tob Res 16(10):1307-1318.
- DHHS. The health consequences of smoking: 50 years of progress. http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/50th-anniversary/index.htm.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Let’s Make the Next Generation Tobacco-Free: Your Guide to the 50th Anniversary Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. [PDF–795 KB] Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014 [accessed 2014 Mar 5].