When the smoke cleared ...

Empire editorial

Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2002

Jim Duncan, commissioner of the Department of Administration, was right recently in asking state employees to honor a new Juneau city ordinance prohibiting smoking within 10 feet of entrances to public buildings, even though the law does not apply to state facilities.

A committee of state employees who work for the Department of Health and Social Services in the Alaska Office Building in downtown Juneau lost its way, however, in crafting a compliance recommendation.

As you probably heard, the employees recommended building a small, covered, shelter outside the building so state workers could have a cozy, dry place to smoke during their breaks.

The suggestion astounded some who saw details in a departmental e-mail. It's a safe bet that only a few internal memos have zipped around the city so quickly.

It did not matter how much or how little the department was willing to pay to build the outdoor shelter. Common sense and fiscal responsibility made the expenditure of any amount of state funds for such a purpose just plain wrong.

Why that was not apparent to the advisory committee inside the health department, of all places, is a mystery.

All citizens involuntarily help pay the tab for addressing the damages that result from smoking. Government spends our money to provide health care to the significant percentage of smokers who develop diseases such as lung cancer and emphysema - and to the nonsmokers felled by the same diseases as a result of secondhand smoke. Insurance companies pass along to all of us the higher costs of doing business with policyholders who smoke.

This issue was not to be confused with smokers' rights. If the state provides breaks to its employees, those employees who smoke should be free to step outside their office building and light up. But it is wrong to make other citizens pay for a shelter. Better that rainy weather discourage the smokers from lighting up.

Nevertheless, Janet Clarke, an administrative services director, defended the shelter proposal at mid-week, saying the state agency should present reasonable options so employees "can deal with their addiction as well as do their work on a timely basis."

Jay Livey, commissioner of DHSS, did not lose his way in the smoky haze. Realizing the proposal was out of sync with the agency's mission to discourage smoking, he sent it to the ash can before week's end.

"We understand people are addicted, but it made better sense for us to promote a no-smoking environment as much as possible," conceded Clarke.

No kidding, and thank goodness.

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