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Should 'a Room of One's Own' Apply to Smokers?

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

David Galosky watched his father die, painfully.

It was 22 years ago when emphysema killed Edward S. Galosky.

"It is a horrible death," said David, 56, an electrical engineer for the Federal Communications Commission. "My father screamed in the night every night. His lungs were so damaged that they could not function properly."

That explains Galosky's passion. He wants to close a smoking room at his workplace in Columbia. It's a place where nicotine junkies go to fill their lungs with poison.

What to do with smoking rooms in federal buildings is a decision that could fall to President-elect Barack Obama. The American Lung Association is circulating a petition calling on him to issue an executive order that would ban smoking in federal buildings.

Obama, who has tried to quit smoking, has promised not to smoke in the White House. So if there's going to be any smoke-filled room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it will be the figurative kind.

Smoking generally is prohibited in federal buildings under a 1997 executive order issued by President Bill Clinton. It says:

"It is the policy of the executive branch to establish a smoke-free environment for Federal employees and members of the public visiting or using Federal facilities. The smoking of tobacco products is thus prohibited in all interior space owned, rented, or leased by the executive branch of the Federal Government, and in any outdoor areas under executive branch control in front of air intake ducts."

But there's an exception to every rule.

The order says the broad policy does not apply to "designated smoking areas that are enclosed and exhausted directly to the outside and away from air intake ducts."

At the time, that probably seemed like a fair compromise between those who wanted to smoke and those who didn't. But now we know better.

The surgeon general has since reported that "separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating buildings cannot eliminate exposures of nonsmokers to secondhand smoke."

Unfortunately, air cleaning technology is not sophisticated enough to remove the small particles and gases found in secondhand smoke that can be distributed throughout a building by the heating, air conditioning and ventilating systems.

"The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the preeminent U.S. body on ventilation issues, has concluded that ventilation technology cannot be relied on to control health risks from secondhand smoke exposure," the surgeon general's office said in a fact sheet revised last year.

In addition to the smoking room in Columbia, the FCC also has one in its headquarters in the District. The D.C. room was negotiated by the National Treasury Employees Union. A FCC spokesman said there was another one in Gettysburg, Pa., but it is now closed.

Only a couple of employees have complained about the smoking rooms, the spokesman added, while others like them. For smokers, it's a good deal. Having a warm and comfortable, if hazy, place to puff, with chairs, maybe a table and magazines, sure beats standing outside buildings in cold weather looking like a nicotine fiend.

Experts have tested the Columbia room to ensure that it complies with standards that were designed, however ineffectively, to keep smoke in the designated space. The problem, however, is the standards are no longer good enough.

Consider this from the surgeon general:

· Concentrations of many cancer-causing and toxic chemicals are higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.

· Breathing secondhand smoke for even a short time can have immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and interferes with the normal functioning of the heart, blood and vascular systems in ways that increase the risk of a heart attack.

· Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25 to 30 percent.

· Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent.

Add that to the statement by the heating and air conditioning engineers and you have a pretty strong case for doing away with smoking rooms wherever they are in public places.

The District and some states have strong laws against smoking, but they don't trump federal policy.

"We want President-elect Obama to prohibit smoking in all federal workplaces," said Erika Sward, national advocacy director for the American Lung Association. "And the way he does that is to sign an executive order closing the existing loopholes so all federal buildings are completely smoke free."

But he might want a place to sneak a puff, and the FCC isn't too far away.

Diary associate Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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