Nonsmokers extend fight against the smoke-filled room to their jobs

The drive for nonsmokers rights is edging onto what may be its most crucial battleground yet: the workplace. In many ways it is the proving ground for a movement that has made giant strides over the last several years in restricting smoking in restaurants, airplanes, stores, theaters, and public transportation.

Smoking on the job is now the source of the most vehement complaints received by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a Washington-based anti-smoking group.

"It's the newest and most difficult area because it's an eight-hour everyday thing -- more serious for both the nonsmoker and the smoker," explains ASH's John Banzhaf III.

Some government and company offices now have nonsmoking cafeteria sections and some ban smoking in common areas such as conference rooms, auditoriums, and elevators. But Professor banzhaf who teaches law at George Washington University argues that protection -- at least for nonsmokers who are particularly sensitive to breathing smoke-filled air -- should extend further to grouping such workers with other nonsmoking employees or somehow separating them from smoker areas by paneling or other barriers. He likens it to an employer's obligation to make some "reasonable" accommodation for a handicapped employee.

Both a recent University of California study showing measurable physical damage to nonsmokers who are forced to breath smoke-filled air and the increasing number of lawsuits filed by individuals forced to leave their jobs for smoke-related reasons are prodding many employers to recognize the problem, Professor Banzhaf says.

Many of the strongest workplace complaints these days are coming from airplane flight attendants who say the smoke-filled air they must work in is hard on their eyes, breathing, and uniforms. Del Mott of the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington says one key reason is that cabin air aloft is recirculated with a much smaller ratio of incoming fresh air than enclosed spaces on the ground.

"This is one of the few areas where we think we can get the unions to back us up," says Professor Banzhaf, who explains that many unions have been reluctant to represent, and have even proposed, employees in grievance procedures involving nonsmoker rights. "We're hoping the flight attendants will go to the airlines and the Civil Aeronautics Board on this."

The most likely outcome of a stepped up push for smoke-free air by airline employees, however, is a larger more concentrated smoking section rather than an outright ban on smoking. ASH has been pressing for a ban on flights of two hours or less and has new ammunition for a ban on flights of one hour or less from the American Medical Association house of delegates.

Most of the opposition to the more aggressive stance of nonsmokers has come from the tobacco industry rather than from smokers themselves. Professor Banzhaf cites an industry survey recently disclosed by the Federal Trade Commission which indicates that smokers feel increasingly uncomfortable about smoking in public places.

"I think most who do smoke can understand that it's annoying and most wish they didn't," confirms Del Mott, who is a smoker but prefers to sit in the nonsmoking section when she flies because the air is cleaner.

With such allies the nonsmoker movement has nowhere to go but forward in John Banzhaf's view. He says it is only a matter of time.

"To a certain extent this is like any other movement -- there is a period of consciousness-raising and a period where each success helps the next one along."

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