A smoke-free workplace

December 16, 1993

Judged on the merits, a proposal to ban smoking in Maryland workplaces would be adopted without delay -- and without dissent. Unfortunately, when it comes to tobacco, political factors can play as big a role in policy decisions as scientific evidence.

In Frederick today, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board is hearing testimony in the second of two public hearings on the smoking ban proposed by William A. Fogle Jr., the state's secretary of licensing and regulation. The board is expected to vote on the proposal in January. If it is approved, Maryland would become the first state to ban smoking in all workplaces.

At a hearing last week in Crownsville, only a handful of tobacco supporters opposed the regulation, while a parade of witnesses testified to the wisdom of such a ban. Some of those reasons are familiar. The link between smoking and lung cancer is well known. Less well publicized is the connection between smoking and heart disease and respiratory ailments, as well as the link between secondary smoke inhaled by non-smokers and a wide variety of ailments. Infants and young children, for instance, suffer a substantially higher risk of serious lung ailments if they are exposed to environmental smoke.

These risks alone would justify the smoking ban. But the incident that prompted the new regulation -- which Secretary Fogle originally wanted to impose on an emergency basis -- dramatized an even more compelling reason for keeping smoking out of the workplace. In October, three Baltimore school workers died in an explosion ignited when one worker struck a match to light a cigar.

That was a more deadly accident than most, but smoking-related fires are not uncommon in the workplace. During the four years before the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions banned all smoking in 1988, the hospital complex averaged about 20 such fires a year. In the year after the ban went into effect, that count dropped to zero.

Secretary Fogle is right to view this issue with great urgency. And, except for tobacco lobbyists -- who have already vowed to take the matter to court -- it isn't particularly controversial. Even so, there is some question about the secretary's power to impose the regulation. If it were overturned in court, Marylanders would have to look to the General Assembly for action.

There was a time when such legislation would have been a pipe dream. But increasing numbers of Maryland employers recognize that banning smoking in the workplace is a smart business move, and one their employees will applaud.

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