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The Outcasts of the '90s: Smokers in the Workplace : Health: Across U.S., puffers have been put out on the street for their habit. 'You feel like a pariah,' says one.

November 19, 1993|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There they are, the new street people, standing outside buildings at all hours, no matter what the weather. Neither rain nor snow nor scorching heat can keep them off the sidewalks. There they are, right next to the winos.

They are the smokers, the 1 in 4 American adults who still have that nicotine urge, who need to take time out from work each day for a quick smoke or three.

Time was they could smoke at their desks, in the days when a cigarette in an ashtray was very much a part of the workscape. But that is ancient history. In the last decade, they have slowly been banished from the office, sent off unceremoniously to the street as the anti-smoker siren has sounded ever louder. And the campaign against them is on a roll as never before.

"Sometimes, I feel like a homeless child," said Floyd Davis as he took a smoke break outside his office at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District.

Davis has plenty of company. Walk down most any street in any U.S. city and the scene never varies: Smokers standing in clusters on the sidewalk, smokers huddled in a corner when the weather turns foul, smokers forming a gantlet at the front door of thousands of offices. And, in their wake, they leave a pile of crushed cigarette butts as evidence of their communal gatherings.

"You feel like a pariah," said Marylyne Goldstock as she lit a cigarette Thursday, which, incidentally, was the day of the yearly Great American Smokeout.

The smokeout--a whole day devoted to stamping out their personal habit--is just one more annoyance for a population already bedeviled by an onslaught of social, legal and medical pressures.

Smokers, to be sure, are the outcasts of the '90s, often shunted off to spots where they will not be seen, banned from places where they were once free to light up.

"When it's raining, we have to go to the garage," said Jennifer Blackmore as she sat on a bench outside a tony Century City office building, smoking a cigarette. "They don't let us smoke in the lobby anymore. They took out the ashtrays and put in planters." Throughout the country, the anti-smoking forces are holding sway as never before over elected officials. The tobacco industry has been on the defensive since 1964, when the surgeon general released his landmark warning that smoking was hazardous to one's health. But the move to ban smoking in public places has increased since the federal Environmental Protection Agency reported in January that passive smoke--smoke from someone else's cigarette--was killing more than 50,000 people a year.

According to the Tobacco Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group, legislatures in 46 states have passed laws governing smoking. All 50 states have local laws governing where people can smoke and where they cannot.

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In California, about 250 cities have anti-smoking ordinances, with more signing on. The state's laws are becoming so strict that, beginning next year, state prisoners in California will not be allowed one of the few pleasures left them--smoking in their cells.

A bill introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) this month would ban smoking inside all public buildings--defined as being accessible to 10 or more people a week--or limit it to separately ventilated rooms. This month, the attorneys general of 16 states recommended that smoking be banned in all fast-food chains.

There are exceptions, but only a few. In October, the Simi Valley City Council went against the grain when it refused to toughen its anti-smoking law.

But, the trend is definitely toward the likes of politically correct Davis and Thousand Oaks, which have enacted ordinances stating that smokers are not only banned from smoking indoors, they must also be at least 20 feet from a doorway. Which leaves smokers in something of a fix.

"Little by little, we're a dying breed--no pun intended," said John Wheeler as he stood on a heating grate in Denver while puffing on a cigarette recently.

In Seattle, Babette Reyor, who works for a shrimp importer, said she knew things were going to change in her office when the boss quit smoking. Now, she is one of the few who continues to smoke, but she has to do it on the street.

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"What I get tired of is the fact that you feel like a second-class citizen," she said. "Everywhere you go, even in smoking sections in restaurants, you feel you're really imposing on people. And I'm really a sensitive smoker. I try to be very aware of nonsmokers." In Atlanta, office manager Mary Dillon retreats to an open courtyard at Peachtree Center to get her daily nicotine hit.

"They make you feel like you're the scum of the earth," Dillon said. "They make you feel like you're out there doing cocaine or drugs or something."

But there is another side to this: Beleaguered smokers are seeking each other out, using cigarettes as a source of kinship. On streets across America, smokers can be seen lighting up and striking up conversations with fellow outcasts, often with little regard for status.

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