News+Opinion » Will Moredock

THE GOOD FIGHT ‌ Clearing the Air, V

It's time to protect employees from secondhand smoke

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This is one of those good news/bad news reports. And the bad news is actually half good.

The half-bad part is that a bill that would have banned smoking in bars and restaurants was defeated in the state House of Representatives last month. On the other hand, the vote to send it back to committee was extremely close — 55 to 52.

The bill is dead for this legislative session, but who would have guessed that it would ever get this far? And Todd Rutherford, the Richland County Democrat who introduced it, said he will be back next year.

"It's a great day in South Carolina, when a bill about banning smoking gets on the floor and has this much debate," Rutherford told the Post and Courier. The battle will be trying to convince the opponents it is not a nuisance. It's toxic."

So toxic, in fact, that our solons in Columbia long ago banned smoking in such public places as arenas, auditoriums and theaters, day-care and health-care facilities, elevators and libraries. They were so concerned about the health effects of secondhand smoke, they even banned smoking in the chambers of the General Assembly. Why can't they offer the same protection to the employees in bars and restaurants?

Whole countries have now passed laws to keep smoking out of public places, to say nothing of several states and scores of municipalities. Until recently, proponents of "smoker's rights" liked to paint the clean air movement as some kind of Yankee/foreign conspiracy that no self-respecting Southerner would have anything to do with. But now Georgia and Florida have passed statewide smoking bans and the Virginia Senate passed a similar ban in February, though that bill failed to pass the lower house.

So with matters bogged down in Columbia, the issue gets thrown back to municipalities and individual employers. The really good news is that an increasing number of business owners — both corporate and individuals — have chosen to protect their personnel from second-hand smoke.

One company that made the decision some time ago to keep smoking out of its building is Blackbaud, the giant Charleston-based software developer. Apparently, the gathering of dislocated smokers around entrances at Blackbaud's Daniel Island office building had become a problem, as it does in many smoke-free buildings.

On April 3, a memo went out from John Mistretta, vice president of human resources at Blackbaud: "Over the past few months, we have received an increasing number of complaints from both employees and clients regarding the smell of cigarette smoke due to the proximity of smokers on the southeast side of the building ... while respecting the choice of employees who choose to smoke, we are relocating the smoking area to a gazebo near the back parking lot ... we ask you to limit your smoking only to this area."

I don't know how far the gazebo near the back parking lot is from the building on the Blackbaud campus, but perhaps Mr. Mistretta thought it might be sufficiently distant to encourage some smokers to consider giving up the habit. His memo continued: "...in direct response to employees requests to help people stop smoking, we are pleased to announce that, effective April 3, smoking cessation prescription drugs (i.e., Zyban) will be covered under our healthcare plan." Furthermore, Mistretta wrote, Blackbaud was working with its insurance company "to provide a free confidential program" to help employees kick the habit.

I'm sorry that Mistretta did not return my calls to discuss this memo or the company's new smoking policy. But my hat is off to Blackbaud. I only wish that I could report how many Blackbaud employees have accepted the offer of help.

Clearly, Blackbaud feels its highly trained employees are valuable enough to invest in and to work with to overcome their nicotine addiction. Unfortunately, many bars and restaurants consider their employees disposable and not worth protecting. How else to explain the industry's defiant stand against anti-smoking legislation?

Not only has research shown municipal smoking bans do not drive bar and restaurant business out of town; a recent survey by the University of South Carolina showed that 70 percent of 618 Charleston area residents would support a city ordinance prohibiting smoking inside all workplaces, including bars and restaurants. The same survey showed that 63.3 percent of those asked would dine out more frequently if they knew they could do it in a smoke-free atmosphere. Only 9.8 percent said they would do it less frequently.

At least customers have a choice about where they will dine and if they will dine out at all. Bar and restaurant employees have none — except to find another job. It's time bar and restaurant owners showed a little more respect to the people who work for them.

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