Breathing Clean Air is Everyone’s Right

Guest Commentary

Volume CIV, No. 4April, 2004

Joe Shufro

Every year, when the labor movement marks Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28, we mourn those who have been felled by occupational injury and disease and we renew our efforts to make workplaces the safe and healthful environments that they should be.

This year, here in New York, we have a tremendous victory to celebrate, one that has already begun to prevent illness and save lives and will continue to do so indefinitely.

Tens of thousands of New York workers have healthier lungs this spring, because this year they no longer face a deadly toxic substance every time they go to work. Thanks to new city and state laws, which eliminate smoking in all workplaces, including bars, clubs, and restaurants, workers don’t have to choose between earning a paycheck and safeguarding their health.


The importance of the smoking ban to the health of workers in industries where smoking was commonplace can hardly be overstated, because secondhand smoke is a killer. It contains 43 known or suspected cancer-causing substances, as well as poisons such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. Smokers who light up in a workplace are risking not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone around them, including those who are there to earn a living.

While there has been tremendous publicity about the new law, too much of it has focused on how the law inconveniences smokers and allegedly hurts some businesses. Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the deadly hazard posed by secondhand smoke, how the law will prevent thousands of cases of illness and even death, and how the law will save hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare costs.

One study estimates that nonsmokers who work around smokers have a 34 percent increase in their risk of lung cancer. That translates to roughly 400 excess cancers among smoke-exposed New York workers annually.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies secondhand smoke as a “Group A carcinogen” (cancer-causing substance), a designation that EPA applies to only 15 other environmental pollutants, including asbestos, arsenic and benzene. As with other carcinogens, any exposure to secondhand smoke, no matter how small, carries some risk.

Cancer is not the only hazard of secondhand smoke. The EPA estimates that every year secondhand smoke causes as many as 13,000 deaths in the U.S. from heart disease among nonsmokers. Another study found that secondhand smoke causes a 23 percent excess risk of heart disease. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases a person’s risk of stroke, can cause inflammation of the respiratory tract and can also trigger asthma.


A law to protect all workers from secondhand smoke is especially important to protecting the health of the workers who are most heavily exposed, including performers, hospitality industry workers and blue-collar workers. Because blue-collar workers are more likely to smoke than others, without a smoking ban, nonsmoking blue-collar workers are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke.

While the percentage of smokers fell from 42 percent of adults in 1965 to 23 percent in 2000, 36 percent of blue-collar workers continue to smoke. Since 1980, the percentage of white-collar workers who smoke has fallen by 35 percent, while the percentage of blue-collar smokers has decreased by only 14 percent, according to data published by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Not surprisingly, before the law took effect, thousands of white-collar employers had voluntarily adopted smoking bans, affording their workers protection that blue collar, entertainment, and hospitality industry workers did not enjoy.


In fact, before the statewide smoking ban went into effect, nearly two million New Yorkers were heavily exposed to secondhand smoke at work every day. “I had to breathe poison to earn a paycheck,” is the way one ex-bartender put it, who had to leave the industry she loved because secondhand smoke made her so sick.

According to studies reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, levels of secondhand smoke are 1.6 to 2 times higher in restaurants and 3.9 to 6.1 times higher in bars than in office workplaces. The same researchers concluded that “there may be a 50 percent increase in lung cancer risk among food-service workers that is in part attributable to tobacco smoke in the workplace.”

As long as smokers were free to light up in the workplace, many workers were putting their health at risk just by showing up for a shift.

On this Workers’ Memorial Day in New York, as far as tobacco smoke is concerned, those times are thankfully in the past.

Joel Shufro is the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, based in New York City.