Next week, when the workers at the Quin-T Corporation in Tilton, N.H., come back from summer vacation, they'll find a new sign on the plant door: "No Smoking."
The company has not only banned smoking on the premises but also decided not to hire workers who smoke on or off them.
This new will, I am sure, raise the paranoia level of smokers even further. Nagged by everyone from their own pre-school children to Joe Califano, some of this beleaguered group have become as defensive as members of the National Rifle Association.
They now wield their Marlboros like Saturday-night specials and would, I am sure, inscribe their butts with the all-American slogan "Don't tell me what to do."
But the smoking bans in Tilton and other places raise some questions that will be argued about in smoke-filled rooms for a long time: Whose business is our health? What are the limits on the rights of the government, the employer or the individual?
You see, the people at the Quin-T Corporation make electrical-insulation paper using asbestos. As most of you know by now, asbestos is one of the greatest industrial killers of all time. Since 1971 the government has set safety standards, which it is still trying to adjust. But it has also found that an asbestos workers who smokes is 92 times more likely to get lung cancer than the rest of us.
If, then, the employers is forced to follow government standards for employee health, doesn't he have a good reason, even a responsibility, to impose equally important standards of his own for their safety? If he didn't set up a smoking ban, wouldn't he be guilty, at least, of the sin of omission?
It seems to me that once we give our any measure of responsibility for our health - as most of us must - then we also give up some of our rights.
Most of us are irate when the government or industry contributes to our ill health, but we are also irate when they try to restrain us from making ourselves sick.
There is nothing that makes people more convinced that their rights are being infringed upon that smoking bans or saccharine prohibitions or helmet laws. Yet we have also insisted that government, like employers, take an active interest in health by providing us with things like Medicare and medical health plans.
In Ontario, Canada, for example, the government last year began fining citizens if they were caught driving without seat belts. You can imagine how popular that law was.
But the fact is that Ontario also has a national health services. The government clearly felt it had the right to protect the investment of the general public - if only to keep health costs down.
Now I know that private industry - from the coal miners to the cotton manufacturers - has generally had a gruesome safety record. Management usually has to be forced to adopt safety procedures by the public, the unions or the government. There is nothing some of them would like better than turning the burden of occupational health back to the worker.
Not long ago, a company allegedly concerned about health ordered a woman to be sterilized or lose her job. Although she had no plans to have a baby, the company feared being held responsible for a malformed baby. That case was a wild violation of her rights, N.H. and a cop-out on their responsibility.
But still, what happens in a gray area, when the work place is "acceptably" safe for one category of workers and not another?
Does an employer have the obligation to make the factory safe for, say, pregnant workers? 75 percent safe? 100 percent safe? Does the worker have the right to sue to keep her job? If she wins, can she then sue again, if there's a malformed baby?
Those are questions that leave my own mind as smokey as if I'd been trapped in the executive lounge at the Reynolds Tobacco Company. But we're going to have to deal with them, issue by issue.
We need to keep adjusting the balance between the "rights" we like to think of as absolute, but which are really conflicting, and between the responsibilities we like to think of as "total," but which are really relative.
It's odd that some of the basic philosophical issues in the country are revolving around matters of health, but you can see that message in the last puffs of smoke going up over Tilton, N.H.