Smoking ban proposed for all federal offices Health official, Pentagon are squared off against unions, tobacco industry

April 21, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun Richard H. P. Sia of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- A bitter, behind-the-scenes struggle in the Bush administration over America's smoking habit is deepening, posing a major test of Health Secretary Louis H. Sullivan's power to push his all-out campaign to get everyone to give up tobacco.

In one of the most ambitious gestures in his high-visibility assault on smoking, Dr. Sullivan is pressing President Bush to impose a flat, government-wide ban on smoking in every building in which federal civilian employees work -- every facility the executive branch owns, leases or temporarily uses.

The Pentagon is joining in the idea and would allow military smokers to light up on base only in barracks, family quarters and recreational clubs.

The military part of the ban would apply only to bases in this country and in U.S. territories. But the civilian aspect of it would cover every U.S. facility here and abroad, including embassies -- as long as they were part of the executive branch.

The proposed presidential order would not force Congress or the courts to apply the ban in their buildings, but those branches would be "encouraged to meet the spirit and intent of this order," the draft proposal says.

Under the plan, which depends on Mr. Bush's willingness to take a bold and controversial step, government buildings would not have any smoking areas -- even separated rooms or lounges with their own ventilation. The only alternative for smokers: Go outside.

In its key paragraph, the draft presidential order reads:

"It is the policy of the federal government to establish a smoke-free environment in all work space occupied by federal employees. The smoking of tobacco products is thus prohibited in all such federal government-controlled space, including space obtained on a use permit, nominal rental or rent-free basis."

That idea has been circulating in the government for two months. The Sullivan proposal is said to be undergoing "revisions" of unknown scope; there apparently is no timetable for the president to sign, reject or modify the order.

Within the government, Dr. Sullivan and his supporters in other departments -- including the Pentagon -- are being fought by federal employees through their labor unions, by members of Congress from tobacco-growing states, and by some departments -- especially the Agriculture Department.

Outsiders have become involved, with anti-smoking and health organizations lined up on one side and the tobacco industry on the other.

Some of the groups supporting the suggested ban -- such as the American Lung Association and an activist group called Action on Smoking and Health -- do not advocate a total ban as an immediate step , although they do favor it as the long-term goal.

They are willing to accept, as an interim move, the use of separate smoking areas with their own ventilation -- an approach now being taken by a number of government agencies and private-industry firms.

The tobacco industry fervently opposes the total ban and is siding with federal employee unions' demands that the issue should be negotiated at the workplace level, with each group of affected employees and their unions.

Walker Merryman, a vice president of the Tobacco Institute, commented: "This sort of draconian meddling is indicative of a bureaucratic mind totally out of control. Rather than seek to circumvent the collective bargaining process and undermine employee morale, the secretary [Dr. Sullivan] should be looking for ways to increase job performance and productivity by accommodating smokers and non-smokers in the federal workplace."

Accommodation, however, is not Dr. Sullivan's goal. In speech after speech, as head of the Health and Human Services Department, he has made it clear he wants smoking to stop. His goal, he has said, is to "eliminate the use of tobacco in our culture."

Urging private industry to "ban smoking in the workplace as well as in other public areas," the secretary has proclaimed, "I believe that together we can achieve a smoke-free society by the year 2000." He has been spurred on by what he considers the compelling medical evidence that "secondhand smoke" -- smoke from other people's cigarettes, cigars or pipes -- is a serious health hazard to nearby non-smokers.

Before Dr. Sullivan took over at HHS and became its hardest-charging advocate against smoking, the agency had banned smoking in its facilities, where more than 120,000 employees work.

Federal employee unions protested, however, saying that this should not have been done without negotiations with workers' union representatives. In November, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here agreed and told HHS to bargain over its own agency-wide ban. The Circuit Court rejected the agency's claim that its role as the government's chief public advocate against smoking required it to set an example by excluding smokers from its own facilities.

HHS has not gone to the bargaining table over the issue since the court's decision.

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