Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Or, at least, a nonsmoker with watering eyes, pinched nose and complaining to his or her supervisor.
With no specifically designated smoking areas on the Spokane County downtown campus, nonsmoking employees and visitors are often subjected to second-hand Kents and Camels as they try to weave around puffing patrons between the courthouse and the Public Safety Building.
Worse, cigarette-wielding workers can often be seen within match-striking distance of doorways at the headquarters of the Spokane Regional Health District. That image is contrary to the department’s wellness-conscious message, Krista Panerio, a public health educator with SRHD, told county commissioners at Tuesday morning’s CEO meeting.
“I didn’t take long to find people being naughty,” she said while showing commissioners a slide of workers, cigarettes in hand, in plain view of the very patrons they’re trying to wean off tobacco through a variety of addiction-prevention programs.
Employees routinely light up well within 25 feet of entrances to public buildings, Panerio said, which – in effect – makes them lawbreakers.
And nobody is telling them to stop, she added.
“We’re not telling them they can’t (smoke),” Panerio told commissioners. “It’s just that there’s a time and a place. It’s a conflict of interest.”
Public smoking in Washington changed forever in 2005 with the passage of Initiative 901, which prohibits smoking in all restaurants and bars by amending the state’s 1985 Clean Indoor Air Act. The law prohibits smoking within 25 feet of entrances, exits, windows that open and ventilation intakes that serve enclosed areas where smoking is prohibited.
Panerio reported that, in a recent survey of county employees, 90 percent were in favor of having designated smoking areas away from well-traveled walkways and 62 percent were in favor of an all-out smoking ban on county property.
“That kind of blew us away,” Panerio said. “Basically, 80 percent want a change.”
With less than 20 percent of county employees actually smoking, Panerio said there is still a concern over lost work hours due to smoke breaks. She figures that if someone smokes a pack a day, that’s 20 cigarettes spread out over 15-minute increments.
According to the SRHD, Spokane County loses $132.4 million in health care and lost wages every year.
When stacked up against the chronic cell-phone text-message addict or person who takes a long lunch to go to the gym, “it doesn’t even compare,” she said.
“I think we have to show (smokers) there’s a better way, as professionals,” Panerio said.
Commissioner Mark Richard said he favors the idea of designated smoking areas and is personally agreeable to the idea of Spokane County hiring only nonsmoking workers.
“It’s my editorial comment,” he said. “I’m not speaking for the commissioners.”
That idea, however, wasn’t very popular in 2004 when it was challenged by the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, which represents many Spokane County workers. At the time, then-Commissioner Phil Harris contended that the county could set qualifications for employment, but union representatives called the practice discriminatory.
Commissioner Todd Mielke said he would hesitate to go down that road again. Some only smoke occasionally, like at a bar on weekends, he said. Or others manage to stop smoking but, for whatever reason, find themselves back on the habit again.
“People cycle,” he said. “They quit, say they’re not smoking and get hired, and then start up again.”
Panerio said she was in favor of signage telling people not to smoke within 25 feet of doorways and windows as well as other education efforts. Of those who smoke, 73 percent surveyed said they want to quit.
She also said those who do smoke often aren’t being fair to those who don’t.
“When I get into a county vehicle that has been smoked in, I get really upset,” she said. “I mean, I don’t leave my Snickers wrapper behind for them.”