Nonsmokers are slowly winning battles to clear the air at work

Nonsmoker activists are slowly winning their battle for clean air in the workplace. In five states at least 29 cities -- including San Diego, San Francisco, and, most recently, Los Angeles -- have adopted local ordinances restricting on-the-job smoking in private and public employment.

Five states, starting with Minnesota in 1976, have enacted some form of nonsmokers protection.

An estimated 20 percent of nation's private employers, among them the 83,000-worker Boeing Corporation, either impose outright smoking bans, or have policies providing separate areas for smokers and nonsmokers.

And scores of other employers, both private and public, are moving in that direction, either voluntarily or through internal prodding.

For example, it took Marie Lee, a nonsmoking Massachusetts social worker, a court suit and two years to gain a smoke-free workplace.

Her employer, the state Department of Public Welfare, agreed to move its single-room Attleboro office where she works to an office where smokers and nonsmokers will be separated by floor-to-ceiling partitions. Ms. Lee then withdrew her suit.

The agreement amounts to an out-of-court settlement, and the Welfare Department does not concede that the commonwealth is obligated to accommodate nonsmokers. But Ms. Lee's backers, including the Group Against Smoking Pollution, view it as an important precedent setter. GASP leaders note that the suit could have been costly. There was strong opposition from the state and from one of Ms. Lee's co-workers, Judith Caron, who argued that she was addicted to cigarettes and that her comfort and productivity would be impaired if she were unable to smoke.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, a nonsmoker, has designated January ``nonsmoker awareness month'' in the the Bay State. Under consideration is a gubernatorial executive order that would require government agencies to provide, as much as possible, separate work areas for nonsmokers who desire them.

In the state legislature, however, smoke-filled rooms are likely to continue. After two hours of heated debate Wednesday, the House of Representatives, less than a third of whose members smoke, voted 75-to-74 against a proposed ban on smoking at its sessions.

In the past few years, courts in at least three states have upheld a worker's right to a healthy job atmosphere, notes John F. Banzhaf III, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, based in Washington, D.C.

State and municipal laws regulating workplace smoking ``seem to be working quite well,'' Mr. Banzhaf says, and smokers ``are adjusting'' to any inconvenience involved.

Employee smoking restrictions vary widely, from outright bans to provisions for smoking only in certain areas or at designated times, notes Regina Carlson, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of GASP, who has counseled businesses on drafting worksite smoking regulations. Some companies even have separate shifts for smokers and nonsmokers.

Besides Minnesota, which is considered to have the broadest and strictest nonsmokers' rights statute, measures restricting smoking in private workplaces have also been enacted in recent year in Connecticut, Montana, Nebraska, and Utah.

Similar measures are pending in several other states. Legislation cleared the New Jersey General Assembly in December and is expected to come up in the state Senate in the next few months. A Los Angeles ordinance took effect in mid-December and has been widely hailed by nonsmokers.

The first such municipal ordinance in New England was adopted last summer in Newton, Mass., where Massachusetts GASP president Richard Daynard, a Northeastern University Law School professor, is on the board of aldermen.

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