Smoking warriors expand battlefield: Health advocates accuse grocers, retailers of misleading public with smoke-free claims

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Bars and restaurants aren’t the only firms that will soon feel the heat from health advocates pushing laws to ban smoking in public places.

Some are broadening their gaze to drugstores and even supermarkets as potential health risks-and they’re naming names of offending businesses.

It’s a radical approach in a mildmannered metro area, where few dare to poke fingers in the eyes of the business or political elite. And it’s in stark contrast to groups such as Smoke Free Indy, which have broadly warned of the health risks of secondhand smoke but have not hammered particular businesses.

Yet hitting businesses in the p o c ke t b o o k , especially after they’ve spent millions of dollars marketing a fresh and wholesome image, could be an effective strategy regardless of whether Marion County and surrounding areas pass antismoking ordinances.

That is if people like Wendy Cohen keep up the heat.

“I find it repulsive to think that an unsuspecting public has been breathing secondhand smoke when they food shop,” Cohen recently told the Zionsville Rotary Club about Marsh Supermarkets’ store at 10679 Michigan Road.

Cohen said she had been quietly appealing to Fishers-based Marsh to ban smoking for about a year, after several cashiers at the store took her aside and complained that employees are permitted to smoke in back rooms of the store. The rooms aren’t accessible to the public, but the smoke that fills them can leak or be circulated into the main shopping area.

Cohen, who had seen signs at the entrance to the store that touted a smoke-free environment, assumed that meant there was no smoking anywhere in the building.

Cohen told Marsh managers the supermarket chain was deceiving shoppers.

“This one guy said to me, ‘We’re not breaking the law.’ Well, you’re right. That really galls me,” she said.

All that resulted from her appeals was that the smoke-free signs have disappeared from the entrance of the Michigan Road store, Cohen said.

Marsh officials did not respond to questions regarding smoking in back rooms of the store.

The self-described “soccer mom” and wife of a local attorney is angling to see a smoking ban ordinance introduced later this year in Zionsville. One town council member said Cohen is viewed as the anti-smoking force to be reckoned with.

Or, to some, tolerated. What, they wonder, drives a soccer mom to obsess about a little smoke in the back of a store consisting of tens or hundreds of thousands of square feet?

For Cohen, it started nearly four years ago when she and her family moved to Indianapolis from California, which long ago banned smoking in public places.

“My first recollection of Indianapolis when I got off the plane at the airport was how filthy it was outside. There were cigarette butts everywhere. That was my first impression of Indianapolis … It was really tough for me because I lived in such a healthy environment for so long.”

That sensitivity became pronounced every time Cohen went to a restaurant and smelled smoke. “It was a daily reminder that there were places I could not go.”

While Cohen has not been shy about singling out businesses, she has publicly credited Marsh for prohibiting smoking anywhere in its Boone Village store, a smaller store than the one she’s fighting. The store manager even allowed Cohen to put her “Proud to be Smoke Free Zionsville” decals at the store entrance.

But Marsh is not alone in permitting employees to smoke in the back rooms of some food stores.

Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. allows employees to smoke in rooms that have separate ventilation systems, said spokesman Jeff Golc. Although smoking is prohibited in the main shopping area, “We don’t have any signs that say, ‘This is a smoke-free area,'” Golc added.

The nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, also permits employees to smoke within the building depending on local laws and the discretion of store managers, said spokeswoman Sharon Weber. She said employeesmoking areas are “well-ventilated.”

Michigan-based retailer Meijer has break rooms with separate ventilation systems at many of its 163 stores where employees can smoke, said spokesman John Zimmerman. Yet those stores still have decals affixed to their doors attesting to be “smoke-free.”

With such policies, “Hoosiers have no idea what smoke-free means,” Cohen said.

Some health advocates have also received reports of pharmacists smoking in the back rooms of drugstores. George Kristos, who is among those pushing for a ban on public smoking in Carmel, said he’s been trying to reach pharmacists he knows to appeal to executives of the drugstores.

“Those are the type of people we need to get involved in the process,” Kristos said of his less confrontational approach.

In some cases, store managers themselves smoke, making the battle even more difficult. Cohen was in a Big Lots when she smelled smoke and asked to see the manager. Turns out he was the one reeking of cigarette smoke.

“Don’t you care about your employees’ health? Don’t you care about your customers?” she asked.

Such trench warfare by those who feel passionate about the dangers of secondhand smoking can be effective. Almost two years ago, Cohen paid a visit to Zionsville’s Dairy Queen, asking owner Lee Kleiner if she could place “smoke-free” decals on his door.

Cohen got the decals after learning from Tobacco Free Boone County that there was grant money available for such efforts.

“Once I had my decals, I started walking around Zionsville,” she said.

Cohen also made the rounds carrying a bag full of medical information about the dangers of smoking and studies that found retail sales weren’t harmed after smoking bans were instituted in other states.

Kleiner told Cohen that people had been smoking at the Dairy Queen for years before he purchased it. He was leaning toward going smoke-free after he remodeled the store, but had lingering concerns about the possible sales impact of such a decision.

Kleiner said Cohen reasoned with him using data.

“She is very professional, not confrontational in how she does things,” Kleiner said of Cohen’s approach. “She goes out to people and tells them you’re smoke-free.”

His decision to voluntarily ban smoking in the restaurant was affirmed by positive comments from families with children. Sales have not dropped, he said.

Convincing giant retailers could be a Herculean task, however.

Retail groups argue that smoking by a handful of employees inside a supersized store the likes of a Wal-Mart or Meijer poses little risk to the public.

Some Meijer stores, for example, range from 180,000 to 250,000 square feet. Besides the ventilation system’s air flow, air constantly turns over thanks in part to the constant opening of doors, retailers say.

Meijer spokesman Zimmerman downplays the odds of smoke migrating into the main part of the store given the design of the separate ventilation system in the smoking room.

But a physicist who formerly worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said segregating smoke-filled air and its chemicals in one part of a building is difficult using standard commercial ventilation systems.

With over 50 compounds in tobacco smoke identified as carcinogens, James Repace likens it to trying to contain asbestos.

“You would have to ask yourself, ‘If this were an asbestos-contaminated area, would you feel comfortable?'” said Repace, who now heads Repace Associates Inc., a Bowie, Md., consulting firm.

A study published in 2003 by scientists of the California Department of Health Services and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found smoke could leak into returnair vents of poorly designed smoking rooms. That, plus air pressure between smoking and nonsmoking rooms and how often doors were opened were cited as the most important variables in successfully isolating smoky air. The report was published in the

American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers Journal.

The typical commercial ventilation system is designed to handle heating, cooling and carbon dioxide, but “it isn’t designed to contain carcinogens,” Repace said.

State law forbids smoking in food preparation areas of grocery stores and restaurants, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

The law doesn’t take into account potential exposure to carcinogens, per se, but rather bacteria that could stem from the practice of smoking. For example, an employee who smokes could transfer to food bacteria from the cigarette itself.

“Among many reasons a person has to wash his hands is if they went out and had a cigarette,” said Howard Cundiff, director of consumer protection at the State Health Department.

State health inspectors “are not HVAC [heating-ventilation-air-conditioning] experts,” he added.

Perhaps not, but health advocates like Cohen say the health dangers of secondhand smoke aren’t a secret and that businesses had better start considering the majority of their customers, rather than the shrinking minority who smoke.

Meijer’s Zimmerman said retailers focus on the overall population and that they also have employment considerations.

“We do what’s necessary to get the best people to work for us … . We’re in a business that caters to anyone,” he said.

Cohen isn’t buying such answers from retailers.

“Their corporate offices should take a collective hit for this practice,” she said. “The managers look the other way and allow their employees to ‘be happy’ and forget about the air quality for their customers and other employees.”

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