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Workplace smoke lightening up as fewer light up

In the classic newsroom setting, ``you usually think of smoke, coffee, and greasy hamburgers,'' says Ellen Howard, head of personnel at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence, Mass. In her office, however, as well as others scattered across the country, the air is starting to clear. Writers and editors may be hunched over computer keyboards, surrounded by the litter of coffee cups and lunch bags, but there won't be any cigarette butts lying around.

In mid-November, managers at the Tribune banned smoking in all work areas and designated one-third of the cafeteria as the new and only smoking section. The policy has been a success so far, says Ms. Howard, who adds that when a new exhaust system is put in, even the smoke that remains will be filtered out.

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At the Daily Hampshire Gazette in nearby Northampton, Mass., where a similar policy exists, managing editor David Melchior remarks that ``it's strange to come to a paper and find no one smoking.''

Strange now, perhaps, but clear air may soon become the norm in a majority of newsrooms and offices across America.

According to a report this week by the Bureau of National Affairs and the American Society for Personnel Administration, smoke pollution is indeed being filtered out of the American workplace.

The study finds that the number of companies having no policies on smoking and none under consideration has been cut in half since last year, to 22 percent. And the number of companies that totally ban smoking inside their facilities has doubled to 12 percent during that same time period.

Restrictions on lighting up, as well as practices like hiring only nonsmokers, have multiplied dramatically, because of rising health and legal concerns and workers speaking out. Public pressure has also forced some airlines to forbid smoking on some short flights.

The latest surgeon general's report on the hazards of ``involuntary smoking'' concluded, among other things, that simply separating smokers from nonsmokers ``within the same air space may reduce but does not eliminate exposure of nonsmokers to environmental tobacco smoke.''

The report also concludes that tobacco smoke acts with other pollutants, such as asbestos, nickel, silica dust, and radium, which can multiply the effects of possibly dangerous pollutants already present in the workplace.

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Since smoking is not a legal right, but a privilege, a body of law - based on the recent health findings - has resulted in the award of disability benefits, unemployment compensation benefits, injunctive relief, and negligence claims against employers by nonsmokers.

The issue is important enough to push a few innovative companies even further: Cummings Properties Management in Woburn, Mass., for example is paying its workers $500 to drop the habit altogether; Codex Corporation, a division of Motorola Inc., in Canton, Mass., supports its employees in smoker cessation programs. ``If you don't stay smoke-free, they don't reimburse you,'' says Codex spokeswoman Colleen Creeden.

In the past, bans on smoking in offices were rare. They were meant to comply with fire safety or product protection codes, says Jennifer Pepino, assistant director at the Smoking Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Seattle.

And for a long time, fear that ``the sky would fall on them'' kept many companies from making a dramatic change in their policy, says Regina Carlson, executive director at the New Jersey bureau of GASP, Group Against Smoking Pollution.

A number of companies still reflect this fearful or negligent attitude in their smoking policies, Ms. Pepino says. ``One company told me they weren't interested in any smoking policy,'' she explains.```Even if an employee had a breathing problem, they responded, `we can afford to be sued.'''

But increasingly, companies are finding that smokers don't protest when asked not to light up. They're often quite surprised.

``I just don't think [smokers] realized they were bothering people,'' says Patricia Viscardi, occupational health service director at Honeywell Bull Inc., in Newton, Mass., which recently tightened its smoking restrictions.

Rita Addison, president and founder of Clean Air Associates, says that while society hasn't paid attention to smoking for a long time, that attitude has almost completely changed. Her three-year-old consulting firm has helped set up smoking control programs in hospitals, small and large companies, and nonprofit organizations, for a total of 125,000 employees. These types of programs make allowances for the education and adjustment of employees.

Like Ms. Carlson and Ms. Addison, people who have been fighting smoke pollution for years expect 100 percent smoke-free offices in the near future. Already, at least 10 percent of American companies have reached that point, says the Bureau of National Affairs Inc. But separate designated smoking areas are costly.

Although 79 percent of the companies surveyed by the Smoking Policy Institute have some sort of smoking policy, the institute criticizes the ``Band-Aid approach'' taken by many.

Simply setting up segregated smoking areas may not be enough, since sidestream smoke may circulate throughout the whole building, says Pepino, and a good many smoking areas have yet to be properly ventilated if such policies are to be effective. The expense of such systems is one major deterrent.

The institute also discovered that the primary, and perhaps initial, motivation for most companies' smoking policies is to conform to local clean-air ordinances. Honeywell Bull was mentioned as a company that set up a ``weak response'' to its city ordinance. Since then, however, it has strengthened its policy by including a smoking room with outside ventilation, says the company's Ms. Viscardi.

The most successful and creative programs have been those that don't put up with annoying or harmful air pollution, she says, but at the same time include smokers in the decisionmaking process.

``You have to listen to all your employees,'' says Pepino at the Smoking Policy Institute.

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