WASHINGTON — With a witness list that includes organizations from nearly every walk of American life, federal work safety officials opened a marathon hearing Tuesday on a proposal to ban smoking in virtually all workplaces, including restaurants and bars.
Although federal officials have waged a broad assault on smoking and tobacco over the past year, the hearing by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should provide the widest-ranging government forum yet for debating the effects of secondhand smoke. More than 350 speakers are to testify before the hearing concludes in December.
The opening day provided a glimpse of things to come as Ted Grossman, a lawyer for tobacco company R.J. Reynolds Co., told members of the OSHA panel that under his interpretation of the proposed rule, "a judge all alone in his chambers, reading a book, couldn't light a pipe, right?"
John Martonik, OSHA acting director of health standards programs, answered "yes."
The witness list, in addition to representatives of the tobacco and anti-smoking lobbies, includes a casino association, beverage groups, a carpet and rug institute, a postal workers' union, an air traffic controller group and the Refrigeration Service Engineers' Society. The OSHA rule would confine smoking in the workplace to enclosed, ventilated areas. Employers would be required to develop written indoor air quality plans, which would be enforced by OSHA inspectors.
"OSHA's decision to develop rules on indoor air quality--including rules affecting environmental tobacco smoke--flows directly from our duty, our statutory responsibility, to protect the right of American workers to a safe and healthy workplace," said Michael Silverstein, OSHA director of policy, as he opened the hearing.
OSHA is the branch of the Labor Department charged with protecting the safety of the nation's workers.
Tobacco advocates are sounding alarms over the rule, which they claim is too restrictive.
"The only possible way to make this plan work is to create a heated, ventilated chamber where no business can be conducted, no drink or food can be served," said Tom Lauria, assistant to the president of the Tobacco Institute in Washington. Lauria said most businesses would opt to ban smoking in their buildings rather than spend the money to create a smoking room.
The national attempts at a ban come on the heels of a new workplace anti-smoking law in California. Gov. Pete Wilson signed a tough smoking ban to take effect Jan. 1 unless California voters approve a pro-tobacco initiative sponsored by Philip Morris.
OSHA isn't likely to have an easy ride if it is to endorse its plan after the hearing ends. The tobacco lobby is expected to challenge the rule in the courts, which could hold up execution of the rule for years.
A coalition of health groups that includes the American Lung Assn. and the American Cancer Society endorsed the plan, pointing to statistics that list "involuntary smoking" as the third-largest cause of premature death.
While the OSHA proposal specifically cites tobacco smoke as a prime source of indoor air pollution, it also makes mention of paints and solvents. A preliminary OSHA review showed "indoor air pollution" causes a significant level of preventable disease in workers, Martonik said.