The cancer employment plan

March 10, 1995

Opponents of the ban on smoking in the workplace argue that the new law will discourage tourism and hurt the hospitality industry. But Del. George B. Owings this week voiced a different concern.

At a hearing of the House Environmental Matters Committee, Mr. Owings wondered aloud "how many health care workers would lose their jobs" if smoking stopped and cancer were eradicated.

It is not surprising that Mr. Owings, who represents a district that straddles southern Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, worries for the future of his tobacco-growing constituents. Even so, many people were shocked by his insensitive comments.

Mr. Owings, who received angry calls after his quote appeared in this newspaper, says he did not mean to imply that Maryland should promote smoking to assure employment for health care workers. Mr. Owings said he was simply trying to gauge the ban's economic impact on the health care industry because previous testimony at the hearing had focused on the ban's impact on the hospitality industry.

The state health secretary, Dr. Martin Wasserman, did not have any figures on cancer's contribution to state employment, but he has other statistics: Smoking costs Maryland more than $1 billion a year in lost worker productivity, disability pay and health care costs. Perhaps he should have factored in smoking's boon to undertakers and grave diggers, too, since smoking kills some 7,000 Marylanders a year.

Instead of concocting outrageous reasons for smoking, Mr. Owings and the tobacco industry ought to be working to promote alternative and safe uses for tobacco.

On the same day that Mr. Owings' comments were reported, The Evening Sun published an article about the work of Dr. Anthony von Fraunhofer, a scientist at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. He is trying to create a rust prevention treatment using tobacco ingredients. But Dr. von Fraunhofer, as well as other scientists who have discovered alternative uses for the plant, have found the tobacco industry unwilling to buy into their research.

The legislator from Chesapeake Beach can best look after tobacco farmers by helping them grow alternative crops and finding safe uses for tobacco. His comments about cancer's employment contribution served only to carry a debate that is often outrageous enough to a new height of absurdity.

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