Smoking Battle Continues in Federal Bureaucracy

HHS is taking the lead in banning smoking in federal agencies.

The battle has been joined. Not surprisingly, the next skirmish is likely to again be fought in the bowels of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – the agency responsible for improving the health of the nation.

Smoking in federal buildings is still controversial. That is surprising since smoking in GSA buildings has been restricted for over a decade. But the controversy reflects the on-going battle between those who smoke and those who don’t smoke but are afraid of health problems from exposure to second-hand smoke.

There is also an underlying element to the debate. How much power should government exert on personal lifestyle choices – including the lifestyle choices of those who work for the government?

As you can see from the comments sent in by readers in a previous article, there are some strong emotions at play. Smokers often don’t mind going outside or at least out of the office to smoke – but they do want to be able to smoke at work. Non-smokers often don’t want them to smoke anywhere, either because of fear of second-hand smoke or because they find the lifestyle choice (or addiction, take your pick) to be a disgusting habit. To quote one reader, “I see fat slobs shoveling junk food all day long at their desks and they waste as much time on the job as a smoker and then they get disabilities claims, special chairs, desks, etc., just because they are too physically large for normal ones…”

As least in part because of its mission, HHS has stepped into the limelight on this issue. The U.S. Surgeon General recently released a report on smoking and health, revealing for the first time that smoking causes diseases in nearly every organ of the body. Published 40 years after the surgeon general’s first report on smoking – which concluded that smoking was a definite cause of three serious diseases – the latest report stated that cigarette smoking is conclusively linked to diseases such as leukemia, cataracts, pneumonia and cancers of the cervix, kidney, pancreas and stomach.

According to an agency source, this report gives the agency an argument that new information creates a change in circumstances that allows the agency to make changes to working conditions during the term of an existing labor contract.

With this background, the agency recently went before the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) on a number of contract issues, including a proposal to ban all smoking at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore. The agency prevailed. (See the article on this topic and the FSIP decision from the link on the left.) It is not clear the agency would have been successful if smoking had been the sole issue in dispute. In fact, the smoking issue was not a primary goal of the agency in the case that went to the Panel.

An agency representative noted that the agency originally included the ban on smoking in its proposal because the union would not negotiate on the issue and it was a way to try to advance the discussion. When that didn’t work, the issue went all the way to the FSIP under unique ground rules that led to adopting the new restrictions.

But now, according to an agency source, HHS is taking an active role in eradicating smoking in the federal workplace. It has already started the process of banning smoking in other HHS facilities. Agency representatives are briefing unions on the issue as one of the first steps in the process. Anyone with a passing knowledge of federal labor relations knows getting agreement of employee unions may be a big hurdle although agency insiders say that some local union representatives are receptive to the agency’s move.

Federal employee unions are likely to be caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. No doubt, some local union leaders are going to be besieged by bargaining unit employees who fervently oppose smoking and who support a total smoking ban on agency property. These same union leaders are likely to also hear strong opposition to such a ban from employees who smoke and who strongly believe the government should not control their smoking during the workday. The conundrum could lead to a lively bargaining session.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will be the next HHS organization where a smoking ban may become reality. This is a logical step since HHS controls the facilities. In some locations, the facilities are controlled in part by the General Services Administration and HHS employees are co-located with employees of other agencies.

The move apparently has the support of HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson who was reportedly not happy with people smoking outside the building during the funeral of former President Reagan.

Banning smoking at HHS headquarters may be more of a problem than it was at the facility in Baltimore. Because, while HHS controls the entrance to the Hubert Humphrey building in downtown Washington, DC, enforcing an HHS ban on a public street is a more complex problem.

Like most changes impacting large organizations, the smoking issue is likely to continue for years. HHS is taking the lead on this issue; if it is successful, other agencies are likely to follow.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47