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Non-Smokers Gaining Upper Hand in the Workplace

Times Staff Writer

Something irritated Marlene Browning in the summer of 1979, something that made her cough. Even though her cough soon grew progressively worse, nobody thought much of it at the time, not even Browning.

But over the years that followed, it was to be The Cough Heard ‘Round the Company.

“I would cough and cough and cough,” Browning recalled. “It was in spasms, so I couldn’t even talk. I would double over. And when you’re in phone sales, it’s hard to conduct sales and be coughing that severely.”

Browning, who works in the classified advertising department of the Union-Tribune Publishing Co., says she is feeling better and coughing less now. A major reason is San Diego’s year-old ordinance that greatly restricts smoking in the workplace. Another reason, perhaps, is Browning’s own resolve: The Union-Tribune adopted its new anti-smoking policy on May 1--six weeks after Browning sued her employers demanding that they conform to the new ordinance.

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Union-Tribune officials deny that their new policy was prompted by Browning’s suit. Even so, the evolution of smoking guidelines at the company serves as an example of how non-smokers have gained a clear advantage over smokers in the age-old battle over office air pollution.

Monday marks the first anniversary of the San Diego ordinance. For the most part, city officials say, there has been wide, though sometimes grudging, acceptance of the anti-smoking law.

In addition to ordinances such as San Diego’s--and similar laws elsewhere in the county, state and nation--advocates of “non-smoker rights” are now armed with new research underscoring the health hazards of “second-hand smoke.” For example, a study by a scientist with the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that 500 to 5,000 non-smoking Americans could die of lung cancer each year from inhaling cigarette smoke.

And advocates of non-smoking areas also say they are gaining new allies as the combination of the new policies and peer pressure is prompting many smokers to quit.

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“The ordinance has not proved to be that much of a problem for businesses to implement,” said Debbie Kelley, program director for the American Lung Assn., which assists businesses in establishing smoking policies. “The way it’s been handled has been very productive.”

George Story, head of the city’s Citizens Assistance Office, which oversees the anti-smoking ordinance, says 96 complaints have been received since July 1--a paltry number, he suggests, when one considers that 50,000 to 60,000 places of business were affected by the ordinance.

So far, the city has in every case managed to persuade employers to adopt new anti-smoking policies that comply with the ordinance, often with the help of the Lung Assn., Story said. He stressed that not a single citation has been issued by the city attorney’s office.

Still, there have been instances of trouble and tension. Story said two people told him they were fired from jobs because they complained to authorities about the failure of their firms to comply with the ordinance. Those allegations, if proven true, would entitle them to damages and possibly reinstatement, under state law. They said they had consulted attorneys, Story said, but as yet there is no indication that they intend to pursue the matters legally.

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The Union-Tribune is believed to be the only company in San Diego that has been sued over its smoking policy. The story of the smoking battle in the newspaper’s classified advertising office represents a case study of how it divides co-workers into separate camps, forces management to take sides, and can even turn friends into adversaries.

One perspective is offered by Browning, now 49, who had been working for the Union-Tribune for 14 years when her coughing fits started in 1979. Another is offered by Estelle Holmquist, a smoker who also works in the newspaper’s classified advertising department. She was already working at the Union-Tribune when Browning arrived. The two used to be friends.

Browning said she went to company officials in January, 1980, after her doctor told her that she appeared to have developed a severe allergic reaction to cigarette smoke. She estimated that of the 80 to 100 people working in the classified advertising office, about one-third are smokers and the rest are divided equally between non-smokers who are bothered by “second-hand smoke” and those who aren’t.

“I told them (management) the smoke was bothering me, that it was the cause of my cough,” Browning recalled. “They denied that there was any danger there--that there was any smoke at all. Well, it was obvious that there was smoke because you would see it hanging in clouds around the room, like smog.”

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At first, company officials “essentially told me it was in my head,” Browning said. Management’s “resistance and antagonism” to her complaints and the complaints of other non-smokers became more intense in the next two years, Browning said.

Her condition worsening, Browning repeatedly complained to company officials, bringing in letters from doctors urging that she be moved to a smoke-free work area, she said. She even brought in a letter from a psychiatrist saying that her problem was indeed an allergy, not psychosomatic.

Holmquist says she doesn’t believe that smoking became a point of contention in the office until “maybe 1982 or ’83.” She acknowledged that the smoke inside the office would sometimes become so intense that the smokers themselves complained, “and there’d be times when we’d all put our cigarettes out.”

Browning said a worker’s compensation case filed in 1982 by an employee with asthma gave company officials pause, and that the increasing number of complaints ultimately prompted a new policy. A few months before the new city ordinance was to take effect, smokers and non-smokers were segregated into separate areas of the department, though there were no physical barriers dividing the air space. In addition to the air conditioning, the company also installed an air cleansing machine to lessen office pollutants, according to Browning and Holmquist.

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It worked--for awhile. Browning said her condition improved, but several months later, she recalled, “something went wrong with the air conditioning, and I began coughing.”

“You couldn’t really see a change in the environment, but there was something,” she said. “I began to wear a (surgical) mask into the office. . . . It caused me a lot of humiliation.”

Holmquist said she believed “the situation was pretty well taken care of” by the office segregation and the air cleansing machine.

However, the coming of the new city ordinance last July served to further alienate the non-smokers from the smokers. Browning and other non-smokers contended that office policy was not in conformance with the new law.

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Hal Fuson, general counsel for the Union-Tribune, maintains that the company has always been in conformance, citing the “general wording” of the city ordinance.

That ordinance states in part: “No person shall smoke in a public place or place of employment except in designated smoking areas,” and, “Where smoking areas are designated, existing physical barrier and ventilation systems shall be used to minimize the toxic effects of smoke in adjacent non-smoking areas. It shall be the responsibility of employers to provide smoke-free areas for non-smokers within existing facilities to the maximum extent possible.”

Still, complaints about the Union-Tribune’s policy added up at City Hall, and then Browning filed her suit in March. Company officials adopted their new, stricter policy May 1, without ever agreeing that the firm was out of compliance.

Under the new policy, smoking is banned throughout the general work area of the classified advertising department. People can smoke in private offices, and a one-time cloak room has been converted to a smoking lounge with the installation of a sofa, Holmquist said. The vast majority of workers--except for those inside offices--can smoke only on their breaks.

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Many smokers are unhappy with the new policy. A group of about 12 classified workers commemorated the day the policy was enacted with a protest march around the Union-Tribune building. Holmquist said there would have been more, “but we were unable to get the word out” to other departments.

Despite the medical research to the contrary, Holmquist said she believes that many people are better off smoking than not smoking. “I tried to quit once several years ago,” she recalled. “I went for five months. I longed for my cigarettes, I was extremely nervous, and I gained 25 pounds, which I thought was more dangerous to my health than my smoking was.”

Holmquist and Browning don’t talk to each other much these days. They used to socialize outside the office.

“I feel very dreadful about it,” Holmquist said. “She chose to pick me as the person who has ruined her health. She said, ‘Estelle Holmquist has never put out a cigarette for me.’ I felt it was unfair.”

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“It’s very painful to be in this predicament,” Browning said. “But she is leading the movement to try to get the company to reverse its policy . . . She is very articulate. However, I think she’s wrong.”


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