THE GENERAL Services Administration, the federal government's landlord and housekeeper, has proposed to escalate the war against smoking. New proposed regulations would sharply restrict smoking, starting next fall, in all but a few areas of the 6,800 buildings the GSA leases to the government -- buildings that house about 2.8 million civil servants nationwide. Hallways, stairwells, bathrooms and general office space -- but not private offices -- would be off-limits to smoking unless an agency head decided otherwise. The regulations would not force workers who smoke to kick the habit or change jobs -- not quite -- but it would affect them more drastically than any regulations now in force across such a broad spectrum.
*The regulations do not constitute a smoking ban and are not, GSA officials say, intended to pressure employees into quitting. Rather, they stem from concern over the health of nonsmoking colleagues, in the face of growing medical evidence of the health hazards of "sidestream" smoke from others' cigarettes. Still, an agency with power as sweeping as the GSA's in a matter such as this should proceed with caution. Two matters in particular need attention.
The GSA should write into the regulations, perhaps in negotiation with unions, guidelines to ensure that smokers would have easy access to smoking lounges in every area, rather than leaving such access up to the boss's discretion. And GSA should guarantee help or information about help programs for workers who want to quit -- an obvious humane step whose omission over the course of several months' review is puzzling.
There remains a nagging condition bearing on equity. The regulations do not affect private offices -- on the theory that, since the primary concern is to protect nonsmokers, those in private offices can befoul them without offending anybody. True though this may be, the effect again is that while the chain-smoking secretary must change the habit or leave, the chain-smoking boss a few feet away is spared that dilemma. Nobody can be especially happy with this.
It is possible to disapprove passionately of smoking and still to recognize that it is a powerful chemical addiction, the breaking of which involves enormous effort -- and that no matter how strong the external pressure on a smoker to quit or cut down, the strength to do so must come from within. The work place -- the federal work place in particular -- is a tricky area in which to influence people's behavior. It's very well, indeed admirable, for employers to encourage health and discourage smoking in the work place, but failing to allow for people's weaknesses is no way to go about saving their lives.