Smoking curbs tighten on government property


WASHINGTON -- As the Clinton administration begins its campaign to ban smoking in all the nation's workplaces, new efforts are under way to curb smoking on government property.

Under a new Defense Department mandate, military employees who want to smoke will have to go outside to do it, beginning April 8.

For Maryland's 72,000 military personnel, that means smokers will be allowed to light up only in designated outdoor smoking areas. Indoor smoking areas created over the past few years now will be turned over for communal use.

Under the DOD plan, smoking still will be allowed in military barracks, family housing, prison quarters, clubs, restaurants and other recreational areas. The Defense Department -- whose nearly 3 million employees make it the largest employer in the country -- also will provide counseling programs to help smokers kick the habit.

The DOD plan, unveiled earlier this month, aims at enhancing employees' "health and morale" by protecting workers from the involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke, says Sherri Wasserman Goodman, DOD deputy undersecretary for environmental security.

The military's directive comes as the Labor Department seeks to ban smoking in open areas at every workplace in the nation. The proposal, announced last week, aims at curbing health problems relating to secondhand smoke. It would require all employers either to ban smoking or provide separate smoking areas with proper ventilation.

Some federal workers predict the limits of the proposed national ban will be tested early and often -- in the federal workplace.

"I think the Clinton administration is going to start here in the federal government and use it as a case study," says Gene Voegtlin, legislative liaison for the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE).

Over the past several years, regulations at the Social Security Administration increased from indoor smoking curbs to an all-out ban. Now smokers at SSA must leave the building to puff, and even there, some outdoor areas are off-limits.

Complaints about smoking curbs are pouring in to SSA, which employs 15,000 people in the Baltimore area. Some of those workers say the government is placing a stranglehold on their civil rights.

"If the government thinks people shouldn't get up from their desks and smoke then it should tell people they can't get up and go to the credit union or mail packages or buy lottery tickets," says Jim Burwell, an SSA deputy director who was smoking two packs a day when the ban went into effect. "You can't tell me I can't engage in a legal activity."

Nevertheless, Mr. Burwell quit smoking more than a year ago. Federal regulations just added to the social pressure he already felt, he says.

The debate over nonsmokers' rights is expected to get only hotter. Maryland is considering tough regulations that would ban smoking almost everywhere, from work sites to bars to private hotel rooms.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., D-Ohio, have proposed bans on all smoking in federal workplaces. Those bills still await committee action.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that secondhand tobacco smoke causes lung cancer that kills an estimated 3,000 nonsmokers a year and subjects hundreds of thousands of children to respiratory disease. That report has fueled public health campaigns urging Americans to exercise their rights to clean air.

Federal workers may be among the first to hear that rallying cry by nonsmokers -- but they certainly are not the last, says Jeannette Abrams, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees.

"You're going to see more federal, state and county office buildings banning smoking in public places," she says. "That's the trend of the future. The more scientific facts come out, the harder it's going to be to defend."

Nevertheless, Ms. Abrams and other union representatives say the government must give federal employees a strong voice in drafting these new workplace regulations.

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