Thousands of signs warning nonsmokers that second-hand tobacco smoke can cause cancer will begin appearing Saturday in restaurants, bars and hotels throughout the state as a result of Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative.
The notices, which will be posted near the entrances of establishments and workplaces where smoking is allowed, are believed to be the first government-required health warnings to alert the public to the hazards of breathing secondary smoke.
The state-approved placards will read: “Warning: This Facility Permits Smoking and Tobacco Smoke Is Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer.”
“We are printing signs by the thousands and shipping them off to our members all over the state,” said Jo Linda Thompson, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Assn. “We’ve been printing and mailing all week long.”
State Health and Welfare Undersecretary Thomas E. Warriner, who is overseeing the implementation of Proposition 65, said he expects broad compliance from restaurants, hotels and businesses that allow smoking on their premises. Some firms, he said, may simply prohibit smoking altogether as a way of avoiding the warning requirement.
“A company might decide now is a good time to go nonsmoking,” Warriner said.
Proposition 65, which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters in 1986, was primarily intended to ensure that Californians can drink water that is free from contamination by toxic chemicals. However, the initiative was written broadly enough to cover a wide range of other situations in which people are exposed to hazardous substances.
Under the law, businesses that have 10 or more employees must provide “clear and reasonable” warnings if they expose anyone, including their own employees, to a “significant risk” from chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.
A company that violates the law can be fined as much as $2,500 a day for each case of an illegal exposure. And, under the initiative’s “bounty hunter” provision, any member of the public can bring an action alleging a violation of the law and receive a portion of any fines that are levied.
In the case of tobacco smoke, this means that anti-smoking activists will have a powerful new tool to use in their efforts to reduce the public’s exposure to second-hand smoke--and persuade people to stop smoking.
“Warnings like this educate people that there is a health risk and create an incentive to restaurants and other establishments to provide people with a smoke-free environment,” said Jim Shultz, a spokesman for Consumers Union, which supported the initiative. “Even if people won’t stop smoking for their own health, they may think twice when they realize it’s affecting their children and their loved ones.”
The notices will be similar to those already posted in bars, restaurants and liquor stores warning that alcoholic beverages can cause birth defects--a warning that also is required under Proposition 65.
“We are especially concerned about people who work in offices where smoking is allowed because they are exposed to second-hand smoke eight hours a day,” said Robert Simmons of the American Lung Assn. “For customers in restaurants, smoke may be a short inconvenience, but for workers, it is a real significant health risk.”
In recent years, considerable attention has been focused on the health risk nonsmokers face from tobacco smoke. In 1986, Surgeon Gen. C. Everett Koop issued a landmark report, based on 11 medical studies, that concluded that “involuntary smoking” can cause lung cancer in nonsmokers.
On April 1, 1988, Gov. George Deukmejian, acting on the advice of his scientific advisory panel, officially listed tobacco smoke as a carcinogenic substance covered by Proposition 65. Now, one year later under the law, the warning requirement of the initiative will take effect.
Because smokers themselves already receive federally required health warnings on packages of cigarettes, no Proposition 65 warning is required for them.
All responsibility for the signs rests with employers.
“It’s up to the businesses to provide their own signs and to be sure they are hung in highly visible areas,” Simmons said.
Business groups are trying to help their clients meet the requirements by providing signs.
Bill Howe, a spokesman for the California Hotel-Motel Assn., said his organization has notified its members of the law and has sent out more than 3,000 of the 10-inch-square signs.
Thompson, the restaurant association spokeswoman, said her organization is sending out more than 11,000 signs to its members.
“But, the problem is, we can only send out two signs to each member. Some of our clients, like Taco Bell or McDonald’s, need thousands of signs and will have to print their own,” she said.
Thompson added that many restaurants may not receive the notices in time to post them by Saturday, and other industry spokesmen agreed that many smaller establishments that do not belong to trade groups may be slower to learn about the law and post the required notices.
Jan Chatten-Brown of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said such businesses will be given time to comply.
She said that during the next few months, her office will send notices to violators and give them about two weeks to post signs.
“But one warning is all they get,” she said.
Staff writer Ginger Thompson in Los Angeles contributed to this story.