POLITICIANS aren't the only ones who work in smoke-filled rooms. Many an office worker with clean lungs and high hopes for keeping them that way is assigned a desk in a den of nicotine addicts. Conference rooms all over town fill up with blue haze, not all of which is caused by the conversation. And fastidious clerks and paper pushers leave the office each evening smelling as if they'd spent the day supervising the Sparrows' Point blast furnaces.
There are a number of alternatives open to the nonsmoker subjected to office pollution. In descending order of aggressiveness, a victim can tell a roommate to butt out, open a window (this must be done with a chair in most modern buildings, if it can be done at all) or simply grin and breathe it. Adel Gordon, an abstaining environmental analyst employed by Raven Systems and Research, took another route. She sued her employer.
The other day the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against Miss Gordon. While the law in this city forbids smoking in many public places, such as theaters, supermarkets and retail stores, no such prohibition extends to places of employment. Nonsmokers can smolder and fume but, writes Judge William C. Pryor, "Common law does not impose upon an employer the duty or burden to conform his workplace to the particular needs or sensitivities of an individual employee."
Courts in other jurisdictions--California, Missouri and New Jersey--have been more receptive to nonsmokers, holding that employers have a common-law duty to provide workers a reasonable degree of protection from hazards, including smoke, in the workplace. And some judges have found that persons who are abnormally sensitive to smoke are handicapped and that a special effort must be made to accommodate their needs. The key word in these cases is "reasonable." A civilian working on an Army base, for example, was told that while he had some rights, he could not demand a complete ban on smoking on the base, an end to the sale of tobacco products and the arrest of smokers by MPs.
Some state legislatures have enacted antismoking laws, the most comprehensive of which is Minnesota's Clean Indoor Air Act. That law prohibits smoking in all public places except bars and tobacco shops. Workplaces must be smoke free except for private offices and designated smoking areas. And some federal agencies have adopted regulations prohibiting smoking unless all workers in the area agree to allow it.
Nonsmokers are winning in a forum larger than any single courtroom. For almost two decades, public opinion and public expectations have been changing, and the trend is against tolerating tobacco smoke. Addicts are becoming more sheepish about lighting up and abstainers more assertive about their desire for clean air. Smokers who prefer to keep the courts and government regulators out of the picture would be wise to come to terms with nonsmokers at the office.