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By Harriet Baskas

Salt Lake City International, which for years promoted its five post-security smoking rooms as a convenience for smokers making connections, is now snuffing out those lounges.

But not all at once.

The first lounge will close July 5, at the end of the Independence Day weekend, and the last lounge will close the week of December 19, just as the Christmas holiday travel rush begins.

“This is first and foremost an issue of public health, both for travelers and our airport employees,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said in a May statement announcing the closure.

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But she also noted that the “beyond capacity” airport was in dire need of the extra space.

“Every foot of available space should be used to the best advantage of the traveling public,” said Biskupski, citing retail space, charging stations and extra seating as possible uses for the 1,200 square feet that will be freed up by the closure of the smoking lounges.

Going forward, the Salt Lake City mayor noted that smoking rooms are not included in the current designs for the airport’s $1.8 billion terminal remodel program, which has a scheduled phase one completion date of 2020.

Response to the lounge closure announcement has been mixed, said SLC spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.

“Some are praising the closures, others are critical,” with feedback arriving via email, letters to the editor and at least one newspaper commentary, she said.

“I fly frequently through SLC on business and use the rooms every time,” one passenger wrote in an email shared by airport authorities, “I figured this day would come … What a let-down.”

Public health advocates and organizations are applauding the airport’s decision.

“This move will protect workers and passengers alike from exposure to secondhand smoke.” said Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. She said the closures put SLC in good company: more than 600 U.S. airports are now 100 percent smoke free.

Travelers use a smoking room at Salt Lake City International Airport on Aug. 3, 2015.Ravell Call / The Deseret News via AP, file

Eliminating airport smoking lounges could also help improve the state’s financial bottom line, said Brook Carlisle, Utah government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

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“It’s estimated that the annual health care costs directly caused by smoking in our state will reach $542 million this year,” said Carlisle, “not to mention the $355 million in costs from smoking-related lost work productivity.”

Noting that “We’ve had #SmokefreeSkies since 1990,” even U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sent SLC a congratulatory tweet:

In 2015, Murthy posted a thumbs-down photo standing outside a smoking room at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

While SLC is closing its lounges, there are other major U.S. airports, including Washington Dulles, Hartfield Jackson Atlanta International, Denver International Airport, Nashville International, Miami International Airport and McCarran Airport in Las Vegas that still have smoking lounges or other areas where smoking is allowed indoors.

“Research has shown that ventilated smoking rooms and designated smoking areas in airports are not effective,” said Dr. Brian King, deputy director for research translation with the Centers for Disease Control's Office on Smoking and Health, in an email. “This puts people who spend time in, pass by, clean, or work near these rooms at risk of exposure to secondhand smoke.”

Whether smoking rooms at airports are effective or not may soon be a moot point.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, the smoking rate in the U.S. is on the decline: in 2015, 15 percent of U.S. adults smoked, down two percent from 2014 — the biggest decline in more than 20 years.