The smoker in the Health Department

Cigarettes: The Washington County agency said there would be no smoking, not even on the grounds outside the building. Not so fast, said Kay Bennett.

January 03, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- The designated smoking area at the Washington County Health Department is not much to write home about -- a patch of sidewalk, a picnic table, a sturdy ashtray.

It isn't anywhere near as nice, for example, as the smoking area at the hospital on the adjoining property, where smokers huddle in the relative warmth and dryness of a brick alcove.

The smokers at the health department can see the alcove from where they stand, on this bright, cold winter's day, with no brick wall to screen the bitter wind. But they're not complaining. They're grateful just to be able to puff in peace.

For nine months, starting April 5, they had no place to smoke at all, not even a patch of sidewalk. Health Officer Robert Parker, acting on a suggestion of the Tobacco-Free Washington County Coalition, banned smoking on the grounds, the only such ban in all of state government.

Employees couldn't smoke in their parked cars, they couldn't smoke behind the Dumpster (although some people crouched there, out of sight). They had to walk until they were off the property, or get in their cars and drive up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, puffing furiously.

It was an attempt to set an example, the smokers grumble. Someone decided it didn't look good, to see smokers huddled outside the brick building hung with a "Stop Smoking For Life" banner. Well, what about obese nurses, then? When are they going to crack down on them?

But these smokers don't want to give their names, nor do they wish to speak for the record. When the smoking ban came down, only one of the department's smoking employees was willing to fight for the right to light up.

And here comes Kay Bennett now, shaking a Winston out of her pack, turning her back to the bone-chilling breeze as she lights it. Thanks to Bennett, the ban ended Dec. 9.

"I didn't do it just for myself," she says. "I did it for my co-workers, for the clientele and the visitors, too."

A smoker for 41 years, a health department employee for 29, Bennett had never filed a grievance about anything.

"A good employee," says Parker, whom she opposed on the smoking ban.

"Just top of the line. I don't know any other way to put it," says her union rep, Pamela Beeman-Albright of the Maryland Classified Employees Association.

"A good person, a good hard-working person, a good friend and a peacemaker," says her friend Nell Stewart, who happens to run the "Stop Smoking for Life" program.

Bennett is easygoing, too. She didn't raise a fuss when the state banned smoking in all its buildings. She enjoys a smoke-free office, too.

Besides, that original ban -- issued in 1989, revised in 1992 -- probably saved her from repetitive stress injury. "I had tendinitis in my elbow so bad that I would cry if I bumped it coming down the stairs," she recalls. Unable to smoke at her desk, she had to start taking her lunch hour, and short breaks away from the computer. See -- even a bad habit can have its good side.

Yes, she knows it's not healthy. She's a clerk in the alcohol and addictions unit, after all. She quit once, for about six months. But it's her only bad habit, and she's a careful, considerate smoker. She doesn't smoke in front of her 9-month-old grandson, or in anyone else's home or car. She doesn't smoke in front of her friend Stewart, who is troubled by asthma.

But the smoking pad, this little patch of ground -- is that so much to ask of an employer? You could argue that the designated smoking area is the last truly democratic gathering spot in the modern workplace, Bennett points out. It cuts across departmental lines, through office hierarchies. "Why, we've solved problems, standing right here."

Fewer than 20 of the health department's 260-some workers are thought to be smokers. (Some sneak their cigarettes, Bennett says, so it's hard to know the exact number.) But the clients were affected by the ban, too.

She worried, in particular, about the ones who showed up for dentistry appointments, starting at 5: 30 a.m. on Tuesdays. They had to wait in line until 8 a.m., and if they left to take a smoke, they lost their place in line. That didn't seem right to her.

The health department agreed to back down, and the ban is over, but only officially. Parker has sent a memo to the staff, encouraging a voluntary ban. Bennett has faxed a copy to the union, which is studying the memo. It's nothing personal, Bennett and Parker agree. He has his point of view, she has hers.

Parker has never smoked, by the way. Bennett smokes a half-pack to a pack a day. The Maryland taxes are killing her, so she buys her Winstons at a Sheetz store over in West Virginia, where she goes two to three times a week to help out in her son's restaurant. A non-smoking restaurant, by the way -- but the employees are allowed to smoke outside.

And that's the way it should be, Bennett says.

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