NEW YORK — A year ago, Smoke Free Pennsylvania was advocating a law to prohibit smoking on all public school properties. But their foes included the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the school teachers union, which opposed it.
"They argued teachers should have the right to smoke on the school grounds," recalls Bill Godshall, executive director of the antismoking group.
Now, for the first time, some labor unions, including the national affiliate of the Pennsylvania one, are joining forces with public-health groups to try to cut down on blue-collar and union smoking. They will be strategizing on ways to eliminate smoking in the workplace, get insurance companies to cover smoking-cessation courses, and educate their members about the health effects of tobacco usage.
"There is a sea change in the offing," says Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, the Washington-based antitobacco group that is underwriting the new effort.
There is plenty of room for change. According to a study at the federal Center for Disease Control, 36 percent of all blue-collar workers and 32 percent of all service workers smoke, compared with 21 percent of white-collar workers. As Mr. Godshall can attest, labor unions often fight proposed smoke-free-workplace laws. And many union health-insurance policies won't cover smoking-cessation classes.
Also, some states, with prodding from tobacco companies, have said that if companies want to ban smoking on their premises, they must negotiate the change with the unions.
Ms. Healton envisions the new consortium becoming a technical resource center. For example, she says many blue-collar workers are not aware of the health effects of smoking. To try to educate them, the American Legacy Foundation is planning an advertising campaign.
The consortium includes the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Department of Work Environment at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The largest labor union involved is the 800,000-member Laborers' International Union of North America.
Other unions who are not members of the group are interested. "Anything that helps people improve the quality of their life, diet, or exercise is good," says Gary Hubbard of the United Steelworkers of America.
But in one indication of how difficult the issue remains for unions, the AFL-CIO says it has no opinion about the new effort. "We represent healthcare workers and people who make cigarettes, so we leave these kind of decisions to our affiliates," says Lane Windham, a spokeswoman.
Yet Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco company, says it thinks the new effort is a good idea. Says spokesman Tom Ryan: "We support the role of the American Legacy Foundation to educate about the health risks of smoking."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor