Don Parsons’ winning crusade against smoking
July 1, 2006
SUMMIT COUNTY ” As a young surgeon in Denver during the ignorant 1970s, now-retired Dillon resident Don Parsons was one of just a few vocal opponents to the public health scourge of cigarette smoking.
His voice then must have seemed more like a whisper in a canyon.
“You used to find ashes deposited on the produce section of the grocery store,” Parsons recalled.
In contrast to today’s almost militant anti-smoking environment, it’s hard to believe that just 30 years ago people lit up in doctors’ offices and hospitals.
Back then the question wasn’t whether airplanes and restaurants would be smoke-free, it was whether or not there would even be a non-smoking area in those confined spaces.
“We have come very far,” Parsons said.
Starting today, Colorado will take a major step toward protecting the health of employees in bars, restaurants, taverns and most other public places when a legislated comprehensive ban on smoking takes effect across the state. Parsons said the new law “has the potential to have the greatest impact on the public health in Colorado in the last 60 years.”
But it wasn’t without considerable effort, and Parsons has been at the center of the struggle for public health since the 1970s.
After a stint as a Peace Corps doctor in Somalia in the late 60s, Parsons came to Colorado with a newfound appreciation for the impact that public health policy can have on an entire society.
By the 1980s, Parsons was president of the Denver Medical Society. And in the 1990s, he traded in his scrubs for a suit and tie, and went to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist. He spent 10 years on the Hill ” arriving at about the same time the Clintons came to town ” shaping public policy on behalf of Kaiser Permanente.
It was a time when all of Washington was looking for ways to revamp a troubled, taxed public health care system.
“You’re familiar with how a school of piranhas treats an animal that falls into the river?” Parsons asked. “Every special interest, every insurance company, every hospital interest, all the nursing or medical unions or employers ” they all took a small piece out of that project, and by the time it served all of their needs, the health plan just collapsed.”
But near the end of Parsons’ stretch in D.C., he was part and parcel to a major marker in the anti-smoking movement. In 1998, a giant class-action lawsuit filed by 44 states against big tobacco was settled in what’s called the “Master Settlement Agreement,” or MSA.
While millions and millions of dollars were a part of the MSA, more importantly, millions of documents detailing the underhanded tactics and false information campaigns of the tobacco companies finally saw the light of public scrutiny as part of the deal.
It was as if a dirty veil of secrecy had finally been lifted.
The MSA finally meant the end of ad campaigns like Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, which placed impressionable young people in their crosshairs.
The MSA also revealed the millions of dollars spent by big tobacco on junk science campaigns about secondhand smoke and the misinformation operations that went along with promoting patently false research. The biting satire “Thank You for Smoking” was a movie released earlier this year to critical acclaim. It recounts big tobacco’s bad behavior, and is based on the MSA.
Since Parsons officially retired five years ago, he’s been active in the effort to make public smoking bans a reality ” because “it’s just the right thing to do.”
He’s had the ear of legislators throughout the process of considering the ban, and has appeared several times at committee hearings, including testifying in front of the critical Senate Judiciary Committee.
He’s had the backing of a gaggle of advocacy groups, too. Parsons is the president-elect of the Colorado Public Health Association. He sits on the board of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance. And he chairs the board of a group called GASP ” or Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution. He’s not paid for any of his advocacy work.
Locally, people likely know Parsons as the spearhead for the SmokeFree Summit group that won passage of a comprehensive smoking ban across Summit County in 2003 ” supported then by 66 percent of Summit County voters.
The success of Summit County’s smoking ban was a compelling story Parsons would tell to legislators during the lobbying process, as proof that a ban would not put bars and restaurants out of business, as gloomily predicted by many. Parsons points to “unrestrained growth in sales taxes since our policy passed” as proof of the local ban’s success.
“My hat is off to the owners of (bars and restaurants affected by the ban),” Parsons said. “Not only have they adjusted to it ” even though they initially grumbled ” but they have found ways to expand their businesses.”
The new statewide ban about to go into effect is a large step, part of an even larger movement toward protecting unprotected public employees across the world, Parsons said. More than 2,000 cities and states have enacted similar anti-smoking laws, and countries around the globe ” like Spain, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Uruguay, and soon, potentially, France ” are going smoke-free.
Parsons alludes to a “tipping point theory” ” when a certain amount of weight is brought to bear on a status quo, that status quo will change. That change pushes a particular movement over the edge.
“We’re past our tipping point,” he said.
Duffy Hayes can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13611, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.