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The air war over workplace smoking heats up amid a push for tough - and consistent - regulations

By Ron Scherer Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2001


It's easy to spot smokers during the workday. They stand outside in little groups during breaks, exhaling fumes into the air. The scene may take place outside a building lobby or on a loading dock.

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But sometimes smokers refuse to step outside. Some business owners - perhaps tobacco users themselves - don't feel inclined to provide a smoke-free workplace. Some states support "smokers' rights."

As smoking-related petitions are signed and lawsuits filed around the country, questions are being raised about what role, if any, government should play when it comes to smoking in the workplace.

For seven years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been considering a standard for indoor air quality, an idea debated by business.

OSHA's website includes a lengthy discussion on the health effects of secondhand smoke. Early in May, an antismoking group, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), brought a suit asking that OSHA ban workplace smoking nationwide.

"Secondhand tobacco smoke ... according to OSHA's own estimates, kills more American workers each year than all other toxic chemicals combined," says John Banzhaf, executive director of ASH.

Air-quality issues have become a serious concern for many companies and their employees.

To obtain a smoke-free workplace, some workers have resorted to lawsuits or threats of lawsuits. A 1996 Yankelovich survey done for an interior-design association found that air quality was office workers' second-biggest complaint, behind noise.

Today, many large companies have full-time industrial hygienists to help monitor indoor air quality.

"Clean-air issues can be extremely costly because of lack of productivity," says Brian Shelton, chairman of the Indoor Environmental Quality Committee of the American Industrial Hygiene Association in Washington. "Entire plants may have to shut down" because of air-quality issues.

Although no one keeps national statistics on how many workers complain about secondhand smoke in their work conditions, plenty of anecdotal evidence exists.

Americans for Non-Smokers Rights says it gets a few calls every day from people complaining about secondhand smoke at work.

Since 1995, New York has restricted smoking in offices, but not prohibited it. Smoking is allowed in private offices as long as no more than three people are in the office and it does not become a nuisance for other people.

The number of complaints has declined from 2,986 in the first year of the law to 591 last year. But fines have increased, and last year the city collected $157,395 from violators.

"The general trend indicates that the Smoke-free Air Act is indeed successful," says Greg Butler, a spokesman for New York's Department of Health.

When office tenants complain, they usually go to a building manager before taking the issue to the city. The initial response by NAI Lawrence Group, which manages large commercial smoke-free buildings in New York, is to talk to offenders.

"We appeal to their better nature, and 90 percent of them understand and join everyone else in the front of the building," says Anthony Russo, director of operations for the firm.

If the smokers don't move outside, Mr. Russo threatens to report them to the city. "After that, if they continued to smoke and we caught them, we would call the Department of Health and have them issue a summons."

Actually, the process is not quite so simple. If someone complains to the city, an inspector is sent to investigate, using an old-fashioned smoke detector - the nose. If he or she smells cigarette smoke, a warning letter is issued.

After 30 days, if a second complaint is made and the inspector once again smells smoke, the city issues a violation notice with the possibility of a fine ranging from $200 to $2,000.

First-time violators are more likely to get a $200 fine. Chronic violators can get a $2,000 fine. An administrative tribunal has discretion. "Everyone gets his day in court," says Mr. Butler.

But in other parts of the country, cooperation is more limited. For example, 93 employees of Guilford County, N.C., signed a petition asking for a smoke-free workplace.