I used to come home from work smelling like a chimney. It was an occupational hazard.
This was 25 years ago in upstate New York and my newsroom desk was clustered with three others, all of them occupied by cigarette smokers. It's amazing the combination of chain smoking, overflowing ash trays and the tall piles of daily newspapers, reports, notebooks and other combustible clutter didn't trigger a smoke detector or two.
It illustrated the staples of daily journalism: Writing, editing, nicotine and caffeine. Members of other professions, I'm sure, can share similar stories. There was a near mutiny when someone circulated a petition to make the newsroom smokeless. I didn't smoke, but I also refused to add my name. Who wanted to work next to grumpy, unproductive people sneaking out for cigarettes?
In hindsight, the number of mostly college-educated professionals choosing to smoke was astounding considering the Surgeon General's warning had been stamped on every pack of smokes for two decades.
Attitudes and health concerns have evolved, however. Second-hand smoke dangers, lost productivity from absenteeism tied to respiratory illnesses and staggering public health costs ushered in a welcome push for smoke-free environments.
Florida Health Department statistics show Hernando County is home to a greater percentage of tobacco users than the state as a whole. Data collected during 2007 telephone surveys indicates 27 percent of Hernando's adults are smokers. The state average is 19 percent. The Centers for Disease Control estimates the national average at just less than 21 percent. The CDC also identifies cigarette smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., accounting for approximately 443,000 deaths annually.
So, yes, by all means, we should encourage people to stop smoking. Over the past year, Hernando County hospitals established smoke-free campuses and Sheriff Richard Nugent said new hires had to be non-smokers. The city of Brooksville is kicking around some ideas that mirror those steps. Except, the city's original proposal included some giant leaps toward infringing on personal liberties.
It said current smokers on the payroll had one year to quit their nicotine habits. They also couldn't smoke in their personal cars if they were traveling on city business. And, it recommended members of the public be prohibited from smoking in their vehicles if parked in a city lot.
The suggestions are intrusive, unenforceable and the need for them is overstated. Only nine of the 84 city employees who answered a survey identified themselves as smokers and four more said they used smokeless tobacco. In other words, this whole exercise is aimed at less than 11 percent of the workforce. A more simplistic remedy is to follow the sheriff's lead and make non-smoking a prerequisite for future hires.
Likewise, banning smoking everywhere on city property is overbearing. At city parks, for instance, install sand-filled ash trays at the edge of the parking lots and prohibit smoking on the green space. That will achieve the goal of reducing children's exposure to second-hand smoke.
Preventing smoking in personal cars? Good luck enforcing that one. What are we going to do, asked one council member. Go to their vehicles and sniff?
The council retreat was near universal and welcome. Grandfather in current employees, they said, but forget about trying to police smoking in personal cars unless the occupant is transporting another employee on city business. In other words, don't trap a non-smoking city employee in with your second-hand smoke.
Smoking is a choice, but nicotine is addictive. Council members shared personal stories of family members and tobacco use. One said his own sister attempted to quit multiple times and finally told the family to just bury her with a pack of cigarettes.
Trying to achieve a tobacco-free work place is laudable. Expecting a tobacco-free work force, however, takes more than a new ordinance.