Survey: Employers discourage smoking at work
Arkansas may rank near the top of states in the rate of adult smoking, but companies in Baxter County are taking the lead in tobacco prevention by limiting or prohibiting smoking in the workplace.
A recent survey of 156 large, medium and small businesses employing a total of 7,790 local residents found that 90 percent had policies against smoking in indoor public areas. The survey was conducted by the Baxter County Tobacco Control Committee.
However, the survey also found that one in five workers is exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke, mainly in employee break rooms and lounges. Small businesses with 19 or fewer employees led the way in protecting their workers from secondhand smoke with an exposure rate of less than 14 percent.
Large companies employing 70 or more people and medium-sized companies with 20 to 69 workers had rates of worker exposure of 19 and 20 percent respectively.
The survey found that concern for employee health was the single most often cited reason by companies for prohibiting smoking. Workplace safety was the second most often cited reason.
According to Allen Hundley, program coordinator for the Tobacco Control Committee, these numbers are significant for a number of reasons. First, they show that companies understand the dangers of secondhand smoke for their customers and employees. Hundley cited a National Cancer Institute study that found that cigarettes contain 50 cancer-causing compounds.
"The level of these released from the burning end of the cigarette is up to 20 times what the smoker breathes in," Hundley added. "That no doubt in large part accounts for why secondhand smoke kills 53,000 non-smoking Americans a year. It is the third most preventable cause of death in this country."
Nevertheless, many Baxter County workers still are exposed to secondhand smoke in the workplace, according to Tobacco Control Committee Chairman Larry Nelson.
"Our survey found that one in five local businesses allow smoking in non-work areas like employee break rooms and lounges," Nelson said. "Workers exposed to secondhand smoke are 34 percent more likely to develop lung cancer and 80 percent more likely to have a stroke."
Besides protecting the health of employees directly, Nelson noted that anti-smoking policies serve as a powerful and effective means of encouraging smoking employees to give up the habit. "A prohibition against workplace smoking also makes teen-age employees one-third less likely to be smokers, according to research published in he Journal of the American Medical Association," Nelson said. "For all of these reasons, we will be concentrating our efforts in the coming months in encouraging local firms to phase out smoking in all indoor areas."
Secondhand smoke might not seem to be as important an issue as smoking itself, but Hundley pointed to internal tobacco industry documents that show otherwise. A secret 1978 Roper Poll for the tobacco industry found that public awareness of the secondhand smoke issue would be "the most dangerous development to the viability of the tobacco industry that has yet occurred."
An internal Philip Morris document stated that "financial impact of smoking bans will be tremendous -- three to five fewer cigarettes per day per smoker will reduce annual manufacturer profits a billion dollars per year."
Both scientific understanding and public awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke have increased over the years, according to Hundley.
"A 2001 Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of American adults felt exposure to secondhand smoke was 'very harmful,' up from just 36 percent in 1994," he said. "So, while we are making progress, we still have a long way to go in helping the public recognize just how dangerous secondhand smoke is."