Cracking down on smoking

April 05, 1994

Slowly but surely responsible elements of society are closing in on the addictive weed known as tobacco. Restaurants, shopping malls, business offices, most public places ban smoking voluntarily. Now government is getting into the act forcefully.

Both federal and state officials concerned with workers' health have proposed bans on smoking in the workplace -- even restaurants and bars. That includes customers, not just employees. The corrosive effects of tobacco smoke, whether directly from a cigarette or indirectly from someone else's, are well established. It doesn't make any sense to forbid waiters and bartenders to smoke at work while exposing them to the fumes from their customers' tobacco.

Simultaneously the noxious weed is under attack on other fronts. The Food and Drug Administration wants to regulate cigarettes as an addictive drug because of their nicotine content. The Clinton and Schaefer administrations seek to load perhaps $1.50 a pack in new taxes to pay for national health care and state welfare programs.

The Tobacco Institute can be depended on to fight the proposed regulations. This lobbying group continues to deny the link between tobacco and cancer, heart disease and lung ailments. Scientific evidence that second-hand smoke is also a health hazard is denounced as "garbage," though the term is more aptly applied to its own studies claiming cigarettes aren't addictive.

If Maryland's proposal survives the inevitable legal and political challenges, it would be the first state to ban smoking in all workplaces as an occupational health issue and the second to prohibit it in restaurants. Workplace safety is a government responsibility, and tobacco smoke is as much a danger to peoples' health as asbestos fibers.

Restricting smoking in public places is an idea whose time has come. Even the Pentagon, which once ranked cigarettes with food as a necessity for the troops, has now banned smoking in military workplaces worldwide. The growing constraints on tobacco have driven prices down so far that the industry, once the mainstay of Southern Maryland, is unlikely to recover.

Maryland's legislators haven't gotten the word. They still puff away in their chambers and cater assiduously to the wishes of the Tobacco Institute's influential lobbyist. It's time to snuff out the butts permanently -- or snuff out careers of politicians who put the welfare of the tobacco industry ahead of their constituents' health.

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