The General Services Administration, the nation's largest landlord, is proposing to severely restrict smoking in the 6,800 government buildings it owns or leases. Next year, your friendly Internal Revenue Service auditor may be going through withdrawal.
According to an article by Federal Diary columnist Mike Causey, GSA is being run by a runner named Terence C. Golden who is, in the words of an aide, "death on smoking." The proposed regulations, issued while Golden was attending a fitness and health conference in Seattle, call for a ban on pipe, cigarette and cigar smoking in all general office spaces, lobbies, hallways, restrooms, elevators, libraries and classrooms. You could still smoke in your private office if your agency head allows it. Smoking would be restricted to sections of cafeterias, canteens and near vending machines. The ban is scheduled to take effect this fall. The Defense Department and U.S. Postal Service are exempt -- but the Pentagon building isn't. GSA controls it.
Wait till the Russians find out that all those people in the Pentagon are going through withdrawal. That's practically grounds for a preemptive strike.
The rationale for making about half of the government's 2.8 million civilian employes work in smoke-free zones is simple: Golden, like a lot of others, believes smoking is "the chief avoidable cause of death in our country." He believes that nonsmokers who work with smokers are imperiled. Golden is into total wellness.
Creating smoke-free zones in the work place isn't going to stop hard-core smokers but it will certainly cramp their style. Lighting a cigarette will go from being a reflex to a project. A two- or three-pack-a-day smoker will end up spending a great deal of time in the canteen and may very well end up facing the choice of keeping his habit or keeping his job. Regulated smoking breaks -- like coffee breaks -- can't be far behind.
Since my return to a state of smoke-free grace a couple of months ago, I feel particularly qualified to address this issue of smoke-free zones, which has two sides, both of which I've been on.
Smoke pollutes the air, lungs, eyes, hair and clothing of those who come into contact with it, and there's no getting around that. In some people who do not smoke the very act of being around smoke can induce reactions ranging from turned-up noses to volcanic, histaminic displays. Some people don't mind it at all, of course, but it's not very often you hear a nonsmoker (over the age of 14) saying: "Blow some smoke rings in my direction." Smoke can be especially annoying when you are trying to eat in a restaurant or when you are in a poorly ventilated office. Reformed smokers often find smoke particularly trying, not only on their willpower, but also on their sensibilities.
Nonsmokers who don't want to be around smoke have a lot going for them in this argument.
On the other hand, smokers do, too, if only as a practical matter. It's all well and good to go up to someone who is smoking, point to the cigarette and whisper darkly: "Those things will kill you, you know," but you can count on one finger the times that's gotten someone to quit. Smoking is a chemically addictive habit that engages the mind, hands, mouth, blood stream, various enzymes and endomorphines and goodness knows what else in a ritualistic response to stress or lack of it. Withdrawal can provoke gastrointestinal upheavals, shakes, spatial disorientation, cravings of the worst sort and the closest thing to distemper one can get without being certifiable. A single puff of a cigarette can undo a decade of abstinance. We are not talking habit, here, we're talking addiction.
Exhorting a smoker to have a little willpower and quit is like telling an alcoholic to switch to lemonade. They should have realized all this when they started, the prophets of total wellness might declare sanctimoniously, but in point of fact a lot of people started smoking long before they realized how deadly it was to themselves and others. It's not unlike what's happening with cocaine now: Addicts are belatedly getting the news that a "recreational" drug can wreck their lives.
With GSA going smoke-free, private employers won't be far behind. We can look forward to one more step toward being a smoke-free nation, and perhaps we can lower health care costs, insurance premiums (bet me) and the death rate. But the drive to total wellness better be tempered with compassion and understanding for human weakness. If not, the nation is in for an epidemic of division and distemper in the work place that'll make Prohibition look like a Sunday picnic.