Smoking Foe Sees Bill End Up in Ashes

Times Staff Writer

Assemblyman Steve Peace hates cigarette smoke. It makes his throat burn, his nose run and his eyes fill with "gunk."

But Peace, a Democrat from La Mesa, says he doesn't hate smokers. After all, his own mother smokes.

So, to move along his bill that would prohibit discrimination against nonsmoking employees, Peace earlier this year also agreed to prohibit employers from firing workers just because they smoke away from the job.

Now the amendment that once saved the bill may have sunk it. A Senate committee Wednesday shelved the Assembly-passed measure after anti-smoking groups complained that the bill would needlessly elevate smokers to a protected status under the state's anti-discrimination laws.

The bill's odysseys provide a glimpse of how the twists and turns of the legislative process can pit a lawmaker against the very interest groups that would be expected to be among his strongest supporters. Sometimes, a bill can assume a life of its own independent of the author's intentions.

The battle left Peace, who has helped lead the fight to ban smoking on the Assembly floor, dazed. But the result--the bill received only two votes when it needed five for passage in the Senate Industrial Relations Committee--delighted the leaders of an anti-smoking group that organized a grass-roots effort to defeat the measure.

"We're thrilled," said Julia Carol, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. She said she believed the bill was part of a tobacco industry strategy to transform the plight of smokers into a civil rights issue.

Carol said the group's members saw no need for a new law ensuring their right to workplaces free of smoke.

"We're the group that speaks for nonsmokers," she said. "We're not complaining about anything in this state. We didn't need Peace's help, thank you."

Peace said he got the idea for the bill from a constituent who claimed he was fired because he agitated for a ban on smoking at his job site. When Peace introduced the bill earlier this year, it simply prohibited discrimination against any employee who demanded a smoke-free workplace.

But at the first Assembly committee hearing on the bill, Peace faced opposition from two lawmakers--both smokers--who contended that the measure would somehow open the door for companies to discriminate against employees who smoked only while they were off the job. To win passage in that committee, Peace agreed to amend the bill to prohibit discrimination against both nonsmokers and people who smoke away from the workplace.

The provisions protecting smokers, however, raised a red flag with anti-smoking groups. Americans for Nonsmokers Rights mailed more than 10,000 letters to its members, who in turn flooded lawmakers' offices with phone calls and letters opposing the bill. The American Lung Assn., the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society also fought the measure.

Peace said the battle over his bill was the toughest he had faced in his seven years in the Assembly. He said he had agreed to take whatever amendments the opposition wanted, short of deleting the smokers' protection from the bill. Nothing worked.

"My mother happens to be a smoker," Peace told the Senate committee members. "I don't think she ought to be fired because I carried a bill guaranteeing my ability to work."

But the opposition persuaded committee members that the bill was flawed as long as it gave smokers protected status under the state Fair Employment and Housing Act.

"This is not a civil rights issue. It is a public health issue," said Carol.

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