Workplace Safety: Why We Need to Expand Dallas’ Smoking Ban

The council is considering expanding the city’s smoking ban to include indoor workplaces and bars. I support this expansion.

First of all, I don’t like nanny states. I have no interest in telling adults what they can and can’t do to themselves. If folks want to risk their lives with cigarettes, they should smoke to their heart’s content (or at least until they succumb to congestive heart failure).

But the problem comes when smokers place the health of others at risk. I’m talking about employees who are subjected to second-hand smoke at their workplace. Such bar and restaurant workers face a 50% greater risk of lung cancer and endure levels of secondhand smoke 4-6 times greater than found in the home of a smoker. Waitresses who work in restaurants that allow smoking have nearly four times the lung cancer risk and nearly triple the heart disease risk of women in other occupations. But opponents of an expanded ban argue that those employees know the risks, and if they don’t like a smoky environment, they can just seek a job elsewhere.

But that isn’t how we treat other job-related health risks in the United States. We don’t let mining companies decide whether they want to provide respiratory equipment to their employees, then suggest miners get a job elsewhere if they don’t like getting black lung. We don’t allow construction companies to pick the safety standards they want to abide by and then tell construction workers they can just find another place to work if they don’t like using poorly-maintained, unsafe equipment.

Instead, we have very clear safety standards that employers must follow. We don’t force miners and construction workers to choose between getting a paycheck and protecting their health. But every day, we force waitresses and bartenders to make that very choice. In what other work environment would we allow an employer to send their employees into a room filled with a gas containing over 4000 chemicals and over 60 known carcinogens? We wouldn’t. But for some reason we’ve got this weird blindspot for smoking. Despite all the scientific evidence, some people refuse to acknowledge that cigarette smoke is a workplace health risk.

Let’s take the cultural tradition out of smoking and look at it objectively. Imagine people walking into an office building with aerosol cans containing 60 known cancer-causing toxins. They start spraying. They fill up the place with this gas — deadly chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and arsenic. We wouldn’t say these people have a “right” to spray these chemicals just because they enjoy the way they smell. We wouldn’t let them expose the office workers to all those carcinogens, even if the owner of the office building welcomed the sprayers with open arms. And we certainly wouldn’t let the owner charge admission and profit from these spray-happy folks, and accept his lame argument that his employees can just find other jobs if they don’t like sniffing hydrogen cyanide and ammonia all day.

If folks want to expose themselves to deadly chemicals, they should have at it. But to treat smoking differently from any other workplace hazard just because it’s been so pervasive and culturally accepted for so long ignores the clear and undisputed health risks of second-hand smoke. The bottom line is, workers have a right to a safe work environment and shouldn’t be forced to waive that right just to put food on their family’s table.