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Around the Foothills

For smokers, there was no place to go but out on the streets.

July 21, 1988|DOUG SMITH

At about 10 every workday morning, a piquant scene develops outside the checkered white stone and red granite high-rise at 505 N. Brand Blvd.

It's the mid-morning gathering of the smartly dressed young office workers and executives of the new urban landscape.

They stand under a shaded colonnade in small groups socializing or talking shop. They sit on monolithic polished granite benches beside a modernistic stacked-block fountain. They spread out through the plaza among the erector-set light standards and the stone-bordered azalea beds.

They appear to be enjoying their environment of raw and angular man-made beauty. In their demeanor is an almost naughty self-indulgence that recalls those seductive snapshots of Paris street scenes of the 1950s.

And its source, clearly, is the cigarette that almost everyone has in hand.

It's no coincidence that the plaza at 505 N. Brand has become an in spot for smokers. They've been cast from the walled and fluorescent sameness of the lunchroom upstairs by a cool, if benevolent, stroke of corporate logic.

They work for CIGNA Healthplans, a company that operates health centers.

About a year ago, CIGNA management decided to make a statement about its mission.

"We're a health plan," Del Bowman, director of marketing communications in CIGNA'S Glendale headquarters, said. "I think it was felt by company management that, as such, we should advocate healthy life styles for ourselves as well as people that belong to the plan."

First, the company prohibited smoking at its 32 health centers. The obvious next move was to ban smoking on the four floors of the Brand Boulevard high-rise occupied by CIGNA'S administrative staff of 500.

"We felt the policy should be uniform," Bowman said.

So did Reliance Development Group, which manages the 16-story building. The ban was extended to the halls, restrooms and lobby.

For smokers, there was no place to go but out on the streets. They went peacefully. Most of the couple of dozen smokers in the plaza Monday afternoon said they really didn't mind, especially now that the days are warm. At worst, they grumbled muffled complaints about the coercion and the hardship of smoking in inclement weather.

Some found hidden benefits in their new routines.

"Actually, it's the first time in 30 years I've taken a break at work," said a woman who would identify herself only as M.S., an executive secretary.

Predictably, the corporate fiat has caused unpredictable ripples of social change.

For one thing, many who had trained themselves to use ashtrays while smoking inside have reverted to dropping their butts at their feet.

A custodian now has to make a run from time to time to pick up after them.

The most significant repercussions may have touched the traditional office break. As in most offices, CIGNA'S standard of 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon, in addition to lunch, was once interpreted rather casually by employees whose sense of duty, they say, often kept them at their desks with their coffee and cigarettes.

Now, smokers attach ritual importance to their breaks.

"We never took breaks before," said a woman chatting to a friend as both leaned against a decorative light. She said she had taken more breaks since the policy went into effect than in all her previous years at CIGNA.

The other said she now has developed two styles of smoking break.

"When I rush through two cigarettes, then I don't have to come back for an hour and a half," the other one said. "If I only smoke one, I have to come back in an hour."

Neither would give her name. In fact, most of the smokers, though their complaints were mild, were reticent about giving their identities.

In one group, two young women offered the aliases "Suzie from La Jolla" and "Esmeralda from Escondido."

Suzie was still miffed about the hardships of winter.

"I don't think you should be able to force people out in the rain to smoke," she said.

She also had her own math for the coffee break.

"You get two 15-minute breaks," she said. "You could actually take five 6-minute breaks."

The others denied there was a policy allowing that.

"People do !" Suzie said. "I didn't say people can . I said people do ."

As to whether the inconvenience of having to ride the elevator and partition the day's breaks has helped anyone quit or reduce smoking, the evidence is inconclusive.

"That isn't so clear," said Liz from central services. "I'm down to about a pack a day. Used to be about two."

Now, she said, her trouble is that she rushes home at the end of the day to make up the difference.

On balance, though, the ban seems to have given cigarette smokers a push upward socially, at least on the job.

From 10 to 3, the plaza is a lively place. People come and go, talk and laugh. As on a Paris street, there is intimacy and openness all at once.

Workers from different companies even join in social intercourse.

And Suzie says she is meeting people from her own company she never knew before.

"We don't often mingle with the other division," she said. "Except the smokers."

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