Smoke-free zones gain new territory
From parks to bars to the workplace, more states are proposing far-reaching bans that would limit public smoking.
Fifteen years after antismoking forces struck their first major blow, the drive to make workplaces and public spaces across the United States smoke-free is experiencing a new surge.Skip to next paragraph
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In February 1990, airlines for the first time outlawed smoking on flights lasting less than six hours. This year, legislators have proposed far-reaching public smoking bans in nine states, with similar legislation expected in as many as 11 more. In other states, large cities such as Houston and Salt Lake are considering bans of their own - including one here that would prohibit smoking even in parks.
The push comes at a time when businesses are already targeting smokers in an effort to bring down healthcare costs. Some corporations are refusing to hire smokers - or firing them. A larger number are putting increasing emphasis on counseling and stop-smoking programs, even as they ban smoking anywhere on their property.
In many ways, all the activity is simply the continuation of a long-term trend, as cities and companies gradually impose more smoking restrictions. But as these bans push further into everyday life, this year's increased activity suggests that the issue might be nearing a hinge-point when Americans will define the limits of how far antismoking policies can go.
"This is the direction things are headed in," says Paula Brantner of Workplace Fairness, an advocate for worker's rights. "It may not stop in progressive states until the only place you can smoke is your home."
For some companies, even that is not enough. Late last month, a Michigan company made national news by firing four workers who refused to submit to a nicotine test. Alaska Airlines has a policy of not hiring smokers. Union Pacific railroad recently began a policy of rejecting all work applications by smokers.
In a time when companies are straining to meet rising healthcare costs, the rationale is purely financial. "The basic idea is that smokers have higher healthcare costs than nonsmokers," says John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific in Omaha, Neb. According to company estimates, he adds, each smoking employee costs $922 more per year than a nonsmoking employee.
In 21 states, the policy is perfectly legal. Courts have decided that the Constitution does not protect smokers, leaving it up to each state legislature to determine protections. In the early 1990s, 29 states passed laws protecting smokers from discrimination, and Union Pacific's policy, for example, only applies to workers not in those states.
Yet even in those other 21 states, Union Pacific's stand tips toward the extreme. While there is little data on American firms' policies toward smokers, one recent poll suggests that only 1 percent of businesses refuse to hire smokers and only 5 percent prefer to not hire smokers. After all, smokers still make up 23 percent of the adult population - though that is down from 37 percent in 1970.
"[Companies] want to encourage healthy behavior instead of punishing," says Rebecca Hastings of the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., which conducted the poll.
According to the survey, 5 percent of companies have taken the slightly softer approach of passing on higher healthcare premiums to employees who smoke. Smokers who work at U-Haul International, for instance, must pay $11.50 a week to participate in a wellness program. But that can be a slippery slope.
"Then they should also charge for employees who engage in other forms of risky behavior," says Lew Maltby of the Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J. "Everything you do in your private life affects your health."
The greater movement is to encourage all employees to live healthier lifestyles, with particular attention paid to smokers.