When it comes to convincing people to stop smoking, the health argument has just about had its day. After more than 20 years of surgeon general reports on smoking, almost everyone knows about the health effects of lighting up. Once you understand that cigarette smoking can lead to heart disease, lung disease and cancer, it's hard to imagine any new health evidence that could convince a smoker to stop.

It's time to leave smokers alone with all that evidence and talk to other groups: nonsmokers and employers. It's time to control smoking in the workplace.

One company that already has taken steps in this direction is Boeing, the 83,000-employe aerospace company. Last spring company president Malcolm Stamper announced a policy of work-site restrictions that will eventually lead to a total ban on smoking at all Boeing facilities.

Stamper cited concern for employe health as a major reason for the move, but there are economic and legal costs of smoking in the workplace as well.

Weyerhauser, a major forest products company, recently estimated "smoking costs at corporate headquarters" to be $4.9 million a year. By applying published research on work-site smoking costs to its facilities, Weyerhauser pinpointed the following hidden costs of smoking at work:

* Insurance premiums: Male heavy smokers use the health care system, particularly hospitals, 50 percent more than nonsmokers. Reducing the number of smokers could reduce corporate health care coverage premiums $384,457.

* Absenteeism: Smokers average 50 percent more absences than nonsmokers.

* Productivity: Smokers waste 30 minutes a day in the smoking ritual. This results in a collective annual time loss of 44 man-years.

* Mortality: During their working lifetime, a smoker is 70 percent more likely to die than a nonsmoker.

Weyerhauser, which is now developing a corporate smoking policy, also concluded that restricted smoking could lower maintenance costs and reduce deterioration of furniture and equipment.

And don't think that large corporations are the only ones that can reap an economic benefit by controlling smoking at work.

Radar Electric, a small Seattle electric supply company, instituted a smoking ban and was able to save on maintenance costs. "In today's dollars, that decision to eliminate smoking is saving me $30,000 per year in cleaning costs alone," said Warren McPherson, president of the company.

At the Austed Co. in Sioux Falls, S.D., which has never allowed smoking at its facilities, the cost of employe health coverage is only one third that of comparable organizations.

Of course, some employers may still not be convinced of the need to control smoking. The fact is, they may not have to be convinced: They may be required by law -- or litigation -- to restrict smoking in the workplace.

Nine states (Hawaii, Maine, New Jersay, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska and Utah) specifically regulate smoking in the private sector workplace, and all but 14 states have restrictions on smoking in public places.

In addition, local jurisdictions such as Los Angeles and Suffolk County, New York, have adopted ordinances requiring employers to develop policies that protect employes from the hazards of sidestream smoke.

Companies with more than one work site should be especially concerned with this flood of local and state legislation. The only way to avoid violating this expanding patchwork of laws, and maintain uniform work rules at all facilities, is to establish a stringent smoke control policy that protects all workers.

Some companies avoid smoking control policies because they fear lawsuits brought by employes who smoke. They assume smokers have a right to smoke in the workplace. That may be a popular assumption, but it is certainly not backed up by the courts. In common law, the Constitution and legislation, there is no more right to smoke in the workplace than there is a right for employes to sing at the top of their voices or play radios at high volume.

Courts have upheld the right of smoke-sensitive workers to a smoke-free environment and in at least one case have awarded back pay and disability benefits to an employe whose health was affected by workplace smoke. There has been no successful litigation from smokers against companies that have properly implemented smoke control policies.

So what's an employer to do?

There's no absolute formula for setting up a successful smoking control policy. But in places where a smoke-free environment has been established, there seems to be a common approach.

Companies like Kaiser-Permanente, the world's largest health maintenance organization; CIGNA Health Plan of Arizona Inc. in Phoenix; and the Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative (GHC) are instituting smoking control policies that emphasize cooperation, education and employe involvement.

Employes at these companies -- both smokers and nonsmokers -- have helped to develop a smoking control policy and to set up strategies for putting it into effect.

Those affected do not just receive a memo announcing the policy. Their questions are answered; the hows and whys of the program are addressed in detail. This method works. Today, for example, more than a year after the smoking ban took effect at GHC, 85 percent of the employes support the policy.

Support like that comes through cooperation and communication. Different people respond to different arguments. That's why, when you want to convince people to stop smoking and companies to clear the air, it's important to do more than talk about their health.