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.

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.

"There's a lot more effort to help people quit smoking," says Helen Darling of the National Business Group on Health in Washington. "And more companies will not allow smoking anywhere on the campus - that's a trend."

It is also a vanguard of the antismoking laws now advancing through state legislatures nationwide. In the 11 years since California first instituted a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, a handful of states have considered similar restrictions each year. So far, measures to prohibit smoking in restaurants, bars, or workplaces have taken effect in 10 states.

As many as 20 states may take up the issue this year. "This hasn't really happened before," says Bronson Frick of the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation in Berkeley, Calif.

He expects most bills to fail, but the fact that antismoking laws are being considered in states such as Georgia and North Carolina represents progress to him. Add to that the cities that have already passed workplace bans - including Laramie, Wyo., and Lincoln, Neb. - and he sees an expanding antismoking imprint. "The political will is changing," says Mr. Frick.

Leading the way, not surprisingly, is San Francisco. Last year, several coastal cities in southern California went so far as to ban smoking on public beaches. This year, San Francisco supervisors passed a law - supported by the mayor - that will prohibit smoking in all city-run recreational areas except golf courses.

That includes Mission Dolores Park - and Daniel Lopez. On a cloudless morning, Mr. Lopez and a friend sit on a bench atop the park's grassy ridge, looking out over the skyline of San Francisco - the city framed by a stand of palm trees and smudged by the white thumbprint of a stubborn postdawn haze.

The turquoise lighter in Lopez's hand betrays that he is a smoker, but when he learns of the new smoking ban - which should go into effect July 1 - he defends it, while his friend rails against it.

"The next thing they'll tell me is that I can't wear shorts," says his friend, Marty Soni.

Speaking with the earnest tone of one bestowing great wisdom, Lopez answers: "It's not too much to ask for preservation. I'd probably forget, but I'd do my best to try to abide by it."

Farther down the hill, au pair Simona Piazza tends to her tiny charge, an infant nestled in a stroller taking mouthfuls of baby food. She, too, is a smoker. And she, too, supports the law. "Other people should have a chance to breathe fresh air," she says.

To be sure, San Francisco is a different sort of place, where self-awareness seems to be written into the city charter. But Lopez and Ms. Piazza also suggest how far the public debate has shifted in recent years.

"When this all started, people thought it was unacceptable to ban smoking at work," says Ms. Brantner of Workplace Fairness. These days, "it's not popular to defend smoking."

State smoker protection laws

Between 1989 and 2003, the following states passed laws prohibiting employers from discriminating against smokers:

District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Source: American Lung Association

Smoke-free states

While many states have some restrictions, the following states have total smoking bans in restaurants, bars, and workplaces:

New York
Rhode Island *

*as of March 1, 2005

Source: American Lung Association

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