NEW YORK — FOLLOWING up on a 1993 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy, New York City began hearings this week on proposed legislation that would prohibit restaurants seating more than 50 patrons from putting smokers and nonsmokers in the same room.
The emphasis is on protecting nonsmokers in all public facilities.
Smoking, says New York City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, is worse than a ``bad habit,'' as the tobacco industry maintains. Mr. Vallone, one of 31 co-sponsors of the proposed ban, says: ``To be sure, secondhand smoke represents a serious health risk.''
Sponsors expect the bill to reach New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's desk by this fall. He has indicated he will sign it.
New York is not alone. According to the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, a Washington lobbying group, there are currently 50 clean-indoor-air bills pending in the 25 state legislatures now in session.
Within the past year, Vermont and Utah passed strong antismoking laws. Washington State has added stiff new regulations on smoking in the workplace. And Maryland's Commissioner of Labor and Industry is finalizing far-reaching regulations that could ban smoking at all work sites, restaurants, bars, offices, and even individual hotel and motel rooms.
Since the EPA report was issued, more than 100 United States cities have enacted tough laws.
New York's smoking bans would be extended to hotel and motel lobbies, bingo and pool halls, and child-care facilities. In addition, smoking would be banned in all places of employment, including company cars occupied by more than one person and private residences when employees are working in them. Smoking rooms in offices would have to have separate ventilation and negative pressurization.
The 1993 report is given credit for many of the moves. After reviewing past studies, the EPA concluded that environmental tobacco smoke (second hand smoke) was a Class A carcinogen, the same danger level as asbestos or benzene, and linked it to 3,000 lung-cancer deaths annually. The tobacco industry has steadily tried to depict the report as flawed. But on June 7, the American Medical Association released a report backing up the EPA findings.
At the New York hearings, the Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the industry, maintained business would suffer if forced to abide by the proposed rules.
THE New York State Restaurant Association and the Chamber of Commerce said they were opposed to the legislation. But Speaker Vallone says he has received many letters from officials of cities that have enacted smoking bans and found the move didn't hurt business.
Typical is a letter from Paul Barker, a West Lake Hills, Texas, City Council member. Smoking in public places was banned there last June. City officials asked the State Controller to review the tax revenue from businesses affected by the antismoking law.
``Much to the chagrin of those opposing our ordinance, the controller's data indicated an increase in sales-tax revenues following passage of the ordinance,'' Mr. Barker wrote.
As part of its latest strategy, the Tobacco Institute is asking states and cities to hold off on legislation until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) completes proposed rules for the level of environmental tobacco smoke to be allowed in the workplace. OSHA is taking comments through August. No new federal regulations are expected until 1995.
There has been some speculation that the OSHA regulations might preempt state and local laws. ``It is very important to us that they don't, but it is a possibility,'' says Joe Cherner, the president of Smokefree Educational Services Inc., a New York antismoking group.
OSHA rules are likely to clash with local ordinances since the agency establishes maximum permissible exposure levels based on significant risk determinations.
``Typically, these limits are expressed, not in terms of a ban, but of a permissible exposure limit over an eight-hour working period,'' says Tom Luria of the Tobacco Institute.
New York's rules are likely to be in place prior to any OSHA rules. ``It's not a question of whether it will pass; it's a question of what it will say,'' Mr. Cherner says.
New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has requested a total ban on indoor smoking. Other city officials back that position.