NEXT TO A REFORMED alcoholic, the reformed smoker is probably the most obnoxiously zealous opponent of his former vice. Having known and suffered the slings and arrows of reformed smokers, I vowed never to be the way they were if ever I stopped smoking. Eight years have passed since that happened, and I can report that at least I don't preach to people about not smoking. On the rare occasions that I am moved to address the question, I simply look at the cigarette and look at the smoker and shake my head, and say: "Those things'll kill you." At least it's to the point, and it's one cigarette the person won't enjoy.
Having confessed to my particular bias on this question, I will now tell you that I was rooting for Adel Gordon. Gordon is an environmental sciences consultant who took the company she worked for to court this week, claiming that it promised her a smoke-free environment when it hired her, failed to deliver and then fired her when she insisted on having it. Yesterday, a Superior Court judge dismissed her case, saying that the company hadn't made such a deal, and furthermore that there isn't any statute that applies to smoking in private office buildings, and that this is an issue that is up to the city council, not a judge, to address.
That Gordon lost in the short run does not mean other nonsmokers have to lose in the long run. Several states, including Idaho and Nebraska, have passed indoor clean air acts that the city council could look to for precedent.
The most stringent and far-reaching is probably Minnesota's, which limits smoking to designated areas in every place except people's homes. If people want a smoke-free environment where they work, the employer is compelled to provide it. The law provides for separation distances between smoking and nonsmoking areas, and when the room is not big enough to accommodate both, then it has to be smoke-free. A smoker who smokes in a nonsmoking environment is liable to a fine of up to $100. If a business such as a restaurant that is licensed by the state fails to comply, it can lose its license, according to Charles Schneider, chief of environmental field services for the state health department. With other types of businesses, the state can seek an injunction to keep it from operating until it complies.
"We've threatened getting an injunction 75 to 100 times," Schneider says, "and never had to go to court because the threat has always brought sufficient compliance." The law was passed in 1975 and state health rules enforcing it were issued in 1976. A newspaper poll of both smokers and nonsmokers showed it had overwhelming popular support, Schneider said. "I can't say it's been a piece of cake. We've had our problems with it. The legislature never gave us any money to work on it, so the money we do get is taken from other programs. But every law is a problem. It depends on the cooperation of the general public, and here we've had good cooperation."
Particularly, he says, cooperation from large companies. "They've begun to realize that the nonsmoker is generally healthier than the smoker. They want to keep their insurance costs down." Some companies have instituted no smoking rules during work so that the only times employes can smoke are during breaks. "If you look at the public health risk involved, the longer a person is exposed to smoke the higher the risk. Unfortunately, most of us have to work 40 hours a week. That is probably the longest exposure most of us have to smoke. We don't spend anywhere near 40 hours a week in a restaurant or a bar. The work area is probably the most important place in terms of the public health issue."
Just how much of a health risk smoking is to nonsmokers is a question the tobacco industry is trying to capitalize on. This week, the Tobacco Institute took out a full-page ad in the New York Times questioning the effects of smoke on nonsmokers. The ad featured a montage of five newspaper articles with headlines such as "Scientist Disputes Findings of Cancer Risk to Nonsmokers."
Whether there is enough evidence to prove that smoking can give other people cancer or not goes to the question of just how dangerous the habit is. But nonsmokers who are sentenced to spend a part of their lives around people who smoke can tell you that smokers can be a royal pain in the neck even if they do not give you cancer.
They pollute the air with a smoky, foul-smelling essence that has been known to bring tears to the eyes and coughs to the throats of nonsmokers.
Their cigarette smoke can aggravate or bring on headaches. Ask anyone who suffers migraines and works in a sealed office building with smokers.
Sometimes, it makes people who have stopped smoking want to start again.
Adel Gordon may have picked the wrong forum when she went to court with her grievance. But when she claimed that smokers violated her right to a safe and healthy workplace, she had a case.