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Robert Trigaux

As smoking bans increase, Florida's still not sure where it stands on tobacco



cigarette-packsap.jpgWake up and good morning. When I worked in a Manhattan newsroom for a daily newspaper in the day before cubicles, my desk was jammed against another reporter's who happened to be a chain smoker. I wasn't thrilled about being enveloped in smoke during much of the day but that's how things worked back then, before smoking got slowly banished from work spaces. Later, even at the St. Petersburg Times, I sat next to a smoker who, while not able to puff at his desk, often took smoke breaks outside in warm weather and returned in his own acrid, aromatic cloud. To his credit, he's since quit smoking. (R.J. Reynolds cigarette packs, AP photo)

Now comes a wave of stories about companies increasingly limiting the ability to smoke anywhere, inside or outside, their grounds. New York City is on the verge of banning smoking anywhere in Times Square. And, as this New York Times story notes, more hospitals and medical businesses in Florida and other states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living.

The trend, of course, is causing a, er, stink. States the New York Times: "The policies reflect a frustration that softer efforts — like banning smoking on company grounds, offering cessation programs and increasing health care premiums for smokers — have not been powerful-enough incentives to quit. The new rules essentially treat cigarettes like an illegal narcotic. Applications now explicitly warn of 'tobacco-free hiring,' job seekers must submit to urine tests for nicotine and new employees caught smoking face termination. This shift — from smoke-free to smoker-free workplaces — has prompted sharp debate, even among anti-tobacco groups, over whether the policies establish a troubling precedent of employers intruding into private lives to ban a habit that is legal." Read the story here.

There's even talk of banning smoking in one's own home, at least if kids live there.

Still, smoking is a complex topic in this country. For every two steps forward, we seem to take one back. The latest example is this week's court case in which R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was ordered by a Florida jury to pay $10,000 in compensatory damages to a man who blamed his illnesses on smoking.

The tobacco industry would gladly pay a paltry $10,000 to end a smoker's lawsuit. That's chump change to the wildly rich tobacco companies.

The jurors in state court in Tampa deliberated for 5 1/2 hours Thursday before deciding the case in favor of Leroy Kirkland, 71, who claimed he developed cancer and emphysema from smoking Pall Mall and Salem cigarettes made by R.J. Reynolds, a unit of Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Reynolds American Inc., Bloomberg News reports (story here). Jurors concluded that Kirkland had $100,000 in legal damages and found him 90 percent responsible (meaning the remaining 10 percent of responsibility fell on the tobacco company which thus paid 10 percent or $10,000 in damages) for his illnesses after a two-week trial.

The jury also voted to award punitive damages and will consider the amount today. That sum may be more telling.

williegarycar.jpgThe Kirkland case was the first tobacco claim to be tried by Stuart, Florida, plaintiffs’ attorney Willie Gary. Gary (pictured between his cars and in front of his home, photo courtesy of Willie Gary) had asked jurors to award compensatory damages of more than $96 million and punitive damages of at least $10 billion. So far, it seems, his requests are well off the mark.

(UPDATE: Indeed, the punitive damages are now in (2/14) and are a relatively puny $250,000, Bloomberg News reports.)

In its 2010 State of Tobacco Control report, the American Lung Association gives Florida miserable grades for its efforts to decrease smoking. The grades?

For tobacco prevention and control spending: F

For smokefree air: B

For its cigarette tax: D

And for its cessattion efforts: F

Go Florida! But the bigger trend is clear. At this rate, furtive smokers may soon have to hide in the trunks of their cars to grab a puff.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist




[Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2011 7:04am]


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