San Francisco's law on smoking offers employers tough choices

San Francisco's new smoking ordinance was designed to clear the air in the workplace. But, say some smokers and nonsmokers trying to adjust to the new law, it may create a hazy situation that other communities considering similar laws will want to consider.

Under the ordinance, employers are required to adopt a written policy to accommodate both smokers and nonsmokers, leaving veto power to nonsmokers whose preference - no smoking at all - becomes the rule if a mutually acceptable policy can't be made.

Some office supervisors suggest the ordinance will widen the rift between smokers and nonsmokers, as nonsmokers are given the power to object to - and thus prohibit - smoking in an office. Others suggest that leaving veto power over smoking in the office to nonsmokers puts them in the tenuous situation of bucking the corporate order if it's a superior who's smoking.

It's a situation likely to be taken into consideration as smoking regulations are formulated elsewhere. And nonsmoker groups say more smoking regulations are expected. They point out that nationwide interest in the movement received fresh momentum when San Franciscans backed the ordinance last week (it was approved earlier this year by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors), despite a $1 million referendum campaign mounted against it by the tobacco industry.

The San Francisco law is not considered as strict or as easy to follow as those already in effect in other states, counties, and cities around the country. It leaves an option for smokers, where others have prohibited smoking altogether in public places.

For example, Palo Alto, a suburb south of here, has just enacted an indoor pollution ordinance prohibiting smoking in public places such as meeting rooms, public restrooms, indoor service lines, certain office areas, and health care facilities. The Palo Alto ordinance also allows any employee to designate his area a no-smoking one by posting a sign. City Attorney Diane Lee, who advises employers about how to implement the law, says she is unaware of any enforcement problems yet.

But in San Francisco, where employees and employers will have to hash out their own policies, some expect difficulties. ''I do expect problems,'' says Carla Debban, vice-president and manager of Deak Perera offices here. She describes the supercharged atmosphere of the brokerage firm's main floor where smokers and nonsmokers alike surge among each other in rushes of trading. When constant interaction like this is necessary, segregating smokers and nonsmokers is impossible, explains Ms. Debban, a smoker herself.

Judging from past unpleasant exchanges between nonsmokers and smokers who work for her, she anticipates nonsmokers in two of her divisions to take advantage of the ordinance. From the logistics of the Deak Perera office setup - which is not unusual in many business offices - this is likely to mean smoking will be allowed only in private offices and hallways, she says.

''I need these good people on the floor and if they're going to be out taking a break (to smoke) I can't afford that,'' she says. ''The costs of extra terminals (computers used to monitor market prices) for smoking sections would be terrible. And it would be too expensive and a waste of talent to transfer people out of the department (to regroup smokers and nonsmokers).''

Would the new law encourage some smokers to stop smoking if they had no place on the job to do it? Possibly. But for those like Ms. Debban, there is a principle involved: She says she wouldn't stop smoking for the sake of the ordinance because ''that would be the law telling me what to do in private.''

One nonsmoking administrative assistant at the Bechtel Power Corporation headquarters here was singled out by backers of the new law as one who will benefit from it. But, says the worker, who sits on the edge of the tiny no-smoking section of the employee lunchroom, the new ordinance probably won't benefit nonsmokers here because they won't invoke their no-smoking privilege if they want to advance. A Bechtel spokesman says the company will comply with the law.

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