Thursday, December 15, 2005

Senate Vote on Proposed New Jersey Smoking Ban Today; Bars, but Not Anti-Smoking Group, Demanding Smokefree Air for All Workers

In an ironic twist, organizations representing bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, and veterans' clubs in New Jersey are demanding that state lawmakers provide smoke-free workplaces for all workers in the state, while a major anti-smoking organization is supporting a measure that denies casino workers protection from secondhand smoke that would be afforded to virtually all other workers in the state.

The New Jersey state Senate is poised to vote today on a bill that would ban smoking in all bars and restaurants, but would exempt the state's casinos. This exemption is unacceptable to organizations representing bars and restaurants in the state, but apparently, it is acceptable to a major anti-smoking organization:

"This casino exemption has triggered impassioned opposition from organizations that represent restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and military-veterans' clubs, which held a news conference Wednesday. They argue for one of two things: Scotch the ban or expand it to cover all work places, including casino floors. Eateries have long said they will accept a smoke-free law so long as it covers the casinos, which objected, saying a ban would put them at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other states."

However, "George DiFerdinando, a former state health commissioner and chairman of the anti-smoking group New Jersey Breathes, said his group supports the bill."

The Rest of the Story

I find it to be a sad state of affairs in the tobacco control movement when bars and restaurants in New Jersey are calling for the equal application of the law to protect all workers in the state, but a coalition of anti-smoking groups is supporting a bill that excludes a major class of workers from protection. And this class of workers happens to be the one that is probably most heavily exposed to secondhand smoke, and most in need of protection.

I testified in the lawsuit brought on behalf of New Jersey casino workers against the tobacco companies, so I am familiar with the data on the exposure of casino workers to secondhand smoke, as well as with the health effects that these workers are suffering because of their high exposure. And being aware of the suffering that these workers are experiencing, it is almost unconscionable to me that anti-smoking groups in New Jersey are willing to agree to a purely politically-motivated compromise that will force these workers to continue to suffer.

It is a shame that we have a situation where it is business owners that are actually calling for protection of casino workers, just as workers in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, and other establishments in New Jersey would be protected from this legislation, but that anti-smoking groups are unwilling to summon up the integrity to demand that all workers be protected.

Casino workers describe their conditions as working in a "coal mine." The smoke takes an inexcusable toll on workers with asthma, in particular.

And we're not just talking about a small group of workers here. There are 48,000 casino workers in New Jersey.

I think it's time for public health groups to stand up and have some consistency and integrity in their public positions. If secondhand smoke is such a large health hazard, then all workers deserve protection. It is truly time for a level playing field for all workers. And I think public health practitioners should be demanding such a level playing field, not accepting political compromises that exempt large numbers of workers.

In this case, I think the proposed policy violates the principle of "first, to do no harm" because I think the proposal will make conditions even worse for casino workers, who are going to almost certainly face increased secondhand smoke exposure as smokers from local bars which no longer will be able to allow smoking spend more time in the casinos when they wish to smoke.

It is a disservice to the state's 48,000 casino workers for anti-smoking groups to support the unlevel playing field that the New Jersey bill would create. The idea that this is a step in the right direction does not hold when one is sentencing 48,000 workers to unacceptable levels of exposure to carcinogens for purely political reasons. At some point, I think anti-smoking groups have to be able to stand up for principle - and the principle that all workers deserve a safe working environment is one that should not be compromised for political reasons.

Ultimately, I think it hurts the credibility of anti-smoking groups to sacrifice the consistency of their position. The message it sends is that it is acceptable for some workers not to be protected. And that message, no matter what the political strategy might be, is one that is ultimately going to hurt the overall cause of protecting all workers, not help it.

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