HETRICK: Will healthy workplace hopes go up in smoke?

October 10, 2009

On Oct. 14, a City-County Council committee will consider whether Indianapolis should finish what was started five years ago: making all workplaces smoke-free.

Having sat through myriad hearings in countless communities since then, I can predict as well as any seer what witnesses will say at the council committee meeting.

Health advocates will cite study after scientific study showing that secondhand smoke is hazardous to life and health—even in small doses in a short period of time.

They’ll present evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer, heart disease, asthma, respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome and more.

They’ll show that smoking-related illnesses are the No. 1 cause of preventable death in Indianapolis and America—more than crime, AIDS, H1N1 flu, texting-while-driving, etc.

Inevitably, someone will quote the U.S. surgeon general as saying, “The debate is over. The science is clear: secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance, but a serious health hazard that causes premature death and disease in children and nonsmoking adults.”

They’ll also quote the surgeon general’s finding that “There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.”

Next up will be the economic developers. These witnesses will tell councilors that 26 states, myriad cities and counties and many foreign nations have recognized the health benefits of smoke-free workplaces and cleared the air for all their employees.

They’ll say that in the battle for jobs and smart people to fill them, Indianapolis can’t afford to be an unhealthy place with high health-insurance rates—especially if we’re touting ourselves as a health and life sciences powerhouse.

These witnesses also will cite studies showing that smoke-free workplace laws have not had an adverse economic impact on communities and states that have gone smoke-free.

Next, councilors will hear what the public wants—in the form of opinion polls showing strong preference for clean indoor air. There will be breakouts showing that this holds true in virtually every part of the city; among Democrats, Republicans and Independents; and among every age group.

The other side of the argument will be led by people who own or represent businesses where smoking is still allowed. Foremost among these will be bar owners.

Tavern representatives will tell councilors that most of their patrons smoke and that their businesses would be killed and jobs lost if a smoke-free workplace law were to be imposed on them. They will cite studies and anecdotes of their own showing bars, jobs and tax revenue lost in other places that have enacted such legislation.

Next up will be the “businesses-should-choose” argument. Its proponents will say that government should not impose more regulations on private companies. They will say that with a legal practice such as smoking, property owners should be able to decide what occurs in their establishments.

Next, councilors will hear the libertarian perspective. These witnesses will say that Hoosier adults have the right to make their own decisions and that no government should deny the right to impose and inhale smoke-filled air. They will say that if workers don’t like it, they should get jobs elsewhere, and if customers don’t like it, they should patronize other establishments.

Finally, councilors will hear calls for compromise and delay. Someone will say, “We have to balance jobs, revenue and health. While we know smoking is dangerous, we just can’t risk the job and revenue loss right now.”

The councilors will then contemplate this input, along with such factors as party position, personal faith and values, political contributions, family smoking/non-smoking history, etc. Then they’ll have to make, quite literally, a life-or-death decision for workers in our community.

I don’t envy elected officials calls like this, especially in our shrill, partisan, uncivil times. But such are the expectations of courageous elected leadership.

So what will happen?

Will councilors heed Thomas Jefferson, who called for “a wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another”?

Will anyone consider George Washington’s advice that “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present”?

Will council members of faith consider the Golden Rule, and does imposing one’s smoke on patrons and employees constitute “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

Will they heed the advice of State Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Monroe, who said, “We know tobacco kills. We know it hurts Indiana’s economy. And our elected officials hold the power to make a positive difference in the health of thousands of Hoosiers.”

Will they consider what candidate (now Mayor) Greg Ballard wrote to me in October of 2007: “Secondhand smoke is a proven health hazard and I would support any legislation to limit the impact of secondhand smoke”?

Or will they set safety and civility aside, leave the life-or-death deciding to individual employers, and declare, “Don’t tread on me”?•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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