Cigarette smoking is the single largest preventable cause of death and disability in the United States today. That's why public and private policy-makers--city council members and presidents of corporations--have joined efforts to safeguard the health and welfare of all Americans by imposing even stronger curbs on smoking in the workplace and in public accommodations.
In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was President, the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General issued its first report on smoking and health. The committee's conclusion was stunning: Cigarette smoking, then involving more than 40% of the adult population, was revealed to be an addiction of deadly consequence.
Subsequent reports over the past two decades have added to our knowledge about smoking behavior, the toxicity and carcinogenicity of tobacco smoke, and the specific diseases caused by smoking.
In 1986, President Reagan's surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, issued another landmark report in the Health Consequences of Smoking Series. This report concluded that the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrated a major health risk to nonsmokers (and smokers too) who are forced to breathe "secondhand" smoke. To be precise, the National Academy of Science estimated that 2,500 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers each year are caused by exposure to "environmental tobacco smoke."
What gives these figures even more weight is the fact that any report assessing the consequences of exposure to "sidestream smoke" must be regarded as inherently conservative because exposure to smoke is an almost universal experience in our culture. In other words, even among non-smokers, almost none of us lives in a truly smoke-free environment.
Predictably, the most publicized story to come out of the sidestream smoke debate was Beverly Hills' controversial ordinance banning smoking in restaurants. It fit into the battleground mold and provided a made-for-TV backdrop of glamour and glitter. Smoking in public places had become a hot topic.
Beverly Hills was not alone in its concern. In Orange County, the City of Irvine passed an ordinance increasing to 50% the area set aside for nonsmokers in restaurants and received its fair share of press coverage. But what went relatively unnoticed across the country was the movement under way in America's workplaces.
The same Irvine ordinance that enlarged restaurant set-asides for nonsmoking also strengthened health protections for nonsmokers in office and manufacturing settings. The spirit of the Irvine law is clear: "In any dispute arising under the smoking policy, the rights of the nonsmoker shall be given precedence."
Elevators, restrooms, conference rooms, hallways, classrooms and auditoriums within businesses are all regarded as off limits to smoking.
What is noteworthy about Irvine's smoking ordinance is not that it sets new standards for workplace policy, but that it is simply falling in line with already existing restrictions adopted by many progressive companies within the city.
Realizing the fiscal drain that nicotine users can have on productivity, businesses everywhere are taking America a giant step closer to becoming the "smoke-free society" that Surgeon General Koop so fervently urges.
Since 30% of all cancers, 25% of all cardiovascular disease and 80% of all deaths from respiratory disease are related to smoking, it is little wonder that businesses pay an additional $75 to $150 per year in health insurance for each smoker on the payroll. It's a simple equation. When someone smokes, health and life insurance costs go up, fire insurance costs go up, absenteeism and sickness go up.
The surgeon general estimates that smoking is responsible for $13 billion per year in lost productivity nationwide. Some experts say the figure is closer to $47 billion.
Employers everywhere are responding to these realities. Many times the standards set by companies exceed anything that is contained in local ordinances. There is nothing unusual now about companies banning smoking and offering smoking-cessation classes free of charge to employees.
What this all suggests is that the relationship between business and government regulation can be a very positive one. The old arguments against "government interference" ring hollow. Leaders in business welcome reasonable government regulation to protect worker health, and we in government welcome business initiatives that have the effect of lifting our public health standards.
Of course, there are still the few who claim it is their "right" to poison their neighbor's air, but their numbers are dwindling. Each year the tobacco industry must find 2 million new smokers to replace the ranks of those who have quit or died. The overwhelming majority of Americans, liberal and conservative alike, know what's really at stake here--the health of the American people.
Together, we are drawing the line on individual "rights" when assertion of those "rights" seriously--even fatally--affects others. With our new-found alliance, we are now well on the way to building a cleaner and healthier environment for all Americans.