Companies grapple with debate over smokers' rights

June 04, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Rosalie Sugalski understands all about smokers' rights.

"I remember how important it was to me to have those couple of drags," said Ms. Sugalski, 55, once a three-pack-a-day smoker.

But 12 years ago, a diagnosis of lung cancer scared her into quitting -- cold turkey. In a long operation, a piece of her lung was removed.

"After that, I couldn't even think about a cigarette," she said, sitting in the cozy living room of her rowhouse tucked neatly behind a white picket fence in Conshohocken, Pa.

Lately, though, Ms. Sugalski said she has thought a lot about cigarettes -- specifically, the steady stream of secondhand smoke she inhales daily at her place of work, Markel Inc., a Norristown, Pa.-area manufacturer of insulation products with about 160 employees. She wants her employer to restrict smoking.

While much of big business restricted or banned smoking in the workplace years ago, many midsize and smaller companies -- ones such as Markel -- have only just begun to grapple with this burning issue.

Some smokers have objected to bans that push them outside the office building. Others welcome them as ways to enforce healthier living.

On the national level, groups on both sides have drawn their battle lines, slinging words like grenades.

"That's what we call tobacco apartheid," said Tobacco Institute spokesman Tom Lauria, who has heard from smokers upset about workplace smoking bans. "They feel unjustly cast outside the mainstream of the company." The institute backs restricted smoking areas.

William Godshall, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based SmokeFree Pennsylvania, countered: "Why do we allow people to poison other people? It's respiratory rape." His group has pushed legislation to ban smoking in all workplaces.

For workers like Ms. Sugalski, the issue is this: "I should have a place where I can't smell it."

For her, a company policy can't come soon enough. "My nose burns, my eyes water," she said of her reaction to cigarette smoke. Once again, Ms. Sugalski is scared. Will the secondhand smoke trigger cancer?

As the company hammers out its policy, many other businesses face a similar struggle.

According to a 1991 survey by The Bureau of National Affairs and the Society for Human Resource Management, 34 percent of U.S. companies have banned smoking. Another 34 percent restrict it.

"This is a process," Mr. Godshall said. "Five years ago, most companies allowed smoking everywhere. Now about half still allow smoking everywhere. That's primarily in companies with less than 50 employees."

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency classified

secondhand smoke as a serious cancer-causing agent, more dangerous than radon. It estimated that secondhand smoke caused 3,000 cases of cancer each year in non-smokers.

The announcement rekindled the debate on smoking in the workplace.

Compared to nonsmokers, smokers have a higher absenteeism rate; require more health care; spend 8 percent of the workday on smoking, according to the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.

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