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The Smoking Lamp Is Definitely Not Lit : Firms in Northwest Lead Nation in Imposing Total Ban on Lighting Up in the Workplace

October 12, 1986|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — It begins, almost furtively, every weekday when the lunchtime rush starts and some of the 3,000 employees who work in the downtown headquarters of Pacific Northwest Bell step out at street level onto a pleasant plaza.

Instead of rushing off to nearby restaurants like their co-workers, they stop on the plaza, pull out cigarettes and light up. It has become a daily ritual since last October when Pacific Northwest Bell became one of the first big companies in the nation to institute a ban on all smoking.

In Pacific Northwest Bell's case, this includes 15,000 workers, in 800 buildings spread across Washington, Oregon and northern Idaho.

There is not a single smoking lounge, not one smoking area and no exceptions for executives in private offices. The company cafeteria is entirely smoke-free, just like everywhere else. Pacific Northwest Bell smokers must go outside to do so--directors and vice presidents included, thank you very much.

Variety of Programs

For those who want to quit, the company will pay the cost of any of a variety of smoking cessation programs--including aversion therapy, acupuncture and hypnosis--for any employee or employee's family member. So far, the bill for the nearly 1,300 workers and more than 350 family members who have enrolled amounts to more than $250,000.

There's still a little grumbling among tobacco-using workers. Some of the smokers puffing away at lunchtime on a recent sunny day griped about the company's decision not to provide even a single smoking lounge. But, by the same token, there appeared to be at least grudging acceptance--even by the smokers--that what the phone company has done here is for the best.

And Pacific Northwest Bell is less and less unusual in its aggressive and complete ban on smoking. Spurred by concern over health and accident insurance costs--smokers ring up far larger hospital bills and pose twice the risk of on-job accidents as non-smokers, according to a number of studies--companies here in the Northwest and, increasingly, across the country are discarding complex smoking policies in favor of a simpler dictum: Don't.

The appeal to the bottom line has been intensified by a variety of studies--some of them conducted at the Smoking Policy Institute, an independent foundation that began its existence not in a medical institution but at the Albers School of Business at Seattle University.

The research has concluded that unnecessarily increased insurance costs, absenteeism, reduced productivity and other factors mean that a smoking worker cost his or her employer $4,500 more each year than a non-smoker. But the Smoking Policy Institute estimate is higher than those made in other studies, which have pegged the direct costs per smoker at between $336 and $601 a year.

Total Ban Studied

Boeing Co. has already eliminated smoking in subsidiaries that employ 16,000 of its 113,000 workers and is studying a total company-wide ban. Boeing started studying the issue after one of its top officers told some of his subordinates that he couldn't understand why the company had so-called "clean rooms" for its computers but wasn't as fastidious about what its human employees breathed.

Boeing is especially sensitive to an analogy about smoking drawn often by Neal Sofian, a smoking policy consultant at Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, a large health maintenance organization here. Group Health has developed a side business helping corporations eliminate smoking on the job. Sofian likes to observe that smoking kills 360,000 people a year--the equivalent of three Boeing 747 jetliners crashing every day.

In 1984, Group Health eliminated smoking in two of its three hospitals, except in small separately ventilated rooms that are available to workers on the night shift only because the health centers in question are in neighborhoods where stepping outside after dark might not be safe.

The trend to not just limiting, but wiping out smoking in the workplace, has spilled over into the news business. The biggest local paper, the Seattle Times, and two of the city's major television stations have banned smoking by all of their workers.

The Times was joined by the smaller Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Denver Post and, in each case, papers have continued to be delivered and programs have been broadcast without interruption.

And the movement seems to be gathering momentum. On Sept. 29, for instance, the 2,700 employees at the Thousand Oaks, Calif., headquarters complex of General Telephone of California were notified that, effective Jan. 1, smoking will be prohibited except in a small area of a cafeteria that has its own ventilation system.

General Telephone, a spokesman said, will study ways it may extend the total smoking ban to all of its 25,000 workers.

Phased Program

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