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White House Seeks Wide Smoking Ban : Health: Plan would apply to all workplaces, affecting 20 million people, labor secretary says. Meanwhile, Congress takes up issue of letting FDA regulate tobacco.

March 26, 1994|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration unveiled a sweeping anti-smoking proposal Friday that would ban virtually all indoor smoking wherever people work--from restaurants and bars to offices to factory canteens and nursing homes.

The unprecedented action would affect 6 million workplaces and protect "more than 20 million working men and women (who) face unnecessary health threats" from secondhand smoke, said Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich.

"Lives will be saved, health care costs reduced and productivity increased," he declared.

Reich's announcement was the latest in a series of setbacks for smokers and the tobacco industry. It came on a day that Congress began considering a request by the Food and Drug Administration for guidance on whether to regulate tobacco products as drugs, a move that Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said could lead to nicotine-free cigarettes.

The anti-smoking rule will be published within the next 10 days by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with public hearings to follow that could lead to some alterations. The Administration does not need congressional approval of the rule, which might not take effect until 1996, officials said.

In buildings where smoking is not prohibited by employers or local laws, the rule would allow designated smoking areas, provided they are separate, enclosed rooms with direct ventilation to the outdoors.

Reich's announcement was criticized by the tobacco industry but hailed by anti-smoking advocates.

The Tobacco Institute said that it intends to challenge OSHA's authority to impose the no-smoking rule. Brennan Dawson, an institute spokeswoman, also said that the proposal may not be as revolutionary as it might seem because about 80% of employers already restrict smoking in one way or another.

But Scott Ballin, vice president and legislative counsel for the American Heart Assn., said the organization is "very pleased that the Labor Department and OSHA have taken this initiative. It's clearly a major step."

While many cities, including Los Angeles, already have adopted measures to restrict public smoking, Ballin said, "this is saying that it's a national problem and it needs a national effort."

Wendy Webster of the National Restaurant Assn. said that most of the organization's 550,000 members believe decisions over whether smoking should be allowed in restaurants and bars belong to individual owners and their clientele.

Bob Harrington, the association's director of technical services, declined to comment specifically about the rule Friday afternoon, saying that he needs more time to study it. Still, he said he is troubled by what appears to be potentially onerous burdens on employers to develop indoor air-quality compliance programs.

"This looks like it's another written compliance plan for another OSHA standard that, when you're all done, you still won't know if you're in compliance or not--until you get a citation," Harrington said.

The proposed regulation would require employers to develop programs to inspect and maintain their ventilation systems.

"This proposed rule on indoor air quality and environmental tobacco smoke is part of the most ambitious standard-setting agenda in OSHA history," said Reich, whose department oversees OSHA.

The proposed federal regulation would have less impact in Los Angeles than in most other big cities because smoking has been banned in Los Angeles restaurants since 1993, although bars are exempt.

While many restaurant owners have blamed no-smoking bans for reducing income, Jeff Prince, senior director of the National Restaurant Assn. said there are no hard statistics to document the effects of such restrictions.

In a 1993 association poll, 56% of Americans said that they would be more likely to go to a no-smoking restaurant while 26% said they would be less inclined to do so, Prince said.

On Capitol Hill, Waxman's Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment convened several panels of medical experts as well as tobacco industry officials and anti-smoking advocates to launch what clearly will be a long and contentious debate over whether the FDA should regulate cigarettes.

A month ago, FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler publicly asserted his agency's authority to classify nicotine as a drug--a move that could lead to the regulation or even banning of virtually all cigarettes.

At the time, Kessler all but accused the tobacco industry of stoking a public addiction, citing "accumulating" evidence that nicotine content in cigarettes is being manipulated by manufacturers for that very end--thus making cigarettes for all practical purposes a drug that falls under FDA purview.

Kessler also testified Friday, calling some cigarettes "high-technology nicotine delivery systems" that feed smokers the substance in "quantities that are more than sufficient to create and to sustain addiction" in most smokers.

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