Uncle Sam to Smoking Employees: Quit, Leave or Take the Bus

If smoking is not allowed inside a government building, or around the outside of a federal building, where will smokers smoke? Federal employee unions may be working hard on this issue in the next few months as GSA has issued a new bulletin banning smoking.

Until the 1980’s, anyone who did not smoke was expected to put up with breathing in a smoke-filled room during meetings that seemed as though they would never end. In fact, government conference rooms routinely had large, GSA-approved and issued heavy, brown glass ashtrays frequently used each day by government employees sitting in federal conference rooms. The ashtrays were as omnipresent as the steel gray, metal desks with the rubber tops.

GSA no longer buys those heavy ashtrays by the case and doesn’t distribute them to use in a federal conference room of any size. In fact, in 1997 President Clinton issued an executive order that resulted in many federal employees who like to smoke standing outside the building, whether it was raining, snowing or the sun was shining, taking a “smoke break.”

Of course, anyone entering the federal building had to go into the main entrance of the building. In many buildings, this meant walking around or through the merry band of smokers shivering, talking, laughing, and smoking among themselves.

Time marches on. Just as the smoke-filled conference rooms that existed from the creation of the federal government until the anti-smoking drive of the 1980’s started to take hold, smoking outside of a federal building will soon be a relic of the past.

A short time ago, the American Lung Association set up a petition asking the Obama administration to ban interior smoking in federal buildings and protect all federal employees from second-hand smoke.

It may be a coincidence. But, effective on December 22, 2008 the General Services Administration, the agency that used to ensure every federal agency had an ample supply of light brown, heavy ashtrays in every building, has issued a new bulletin.

Entitled “Protecting Federal Employees and the Public From Exposure to Tobacco Smoke in the Federal Workplace,” this new edict (FMR Bulletin 2009-B1) says that “cigarette smoking is the number one preventable cause of morbidity and premature mortality worldwide. Studies also have shown that the harmful effects of smoking are not confined solely to the smoker, but extend to co-workers and members of the general public who are exposed to secondhand smoke as well.”

The bureaucracy does not move quickly. For example, the new GSA issuance cites the 11-year old Clinton Executive Order which “encourages the heads of executive agencies to evaluate the need to further restrict smoking at doorways and in courtyards under executive branch control and authorizes the agency heads to restrict smoking in these areas in light of this evaluation.”

After long and careful consideration over the past eleven years, the agency has decided to implement this remnant of the Clinton administration’s policies. The new bulletin highlights its new policy as: “smoking is prohibited in courtyards and within 25 feet of doorways and air intake ducts on outdoor space under the jurisdiction, custody or control of GSA.”

And, as part of the new policy, all interior smoking areas will be closed as well.

The new policy is already effective as a government policy but agencies have six months to implement it. Some astute readers may be wondering why, if second-hand smoke is such a dire problem, there is a six-month delay.

The reason for the delay is to give federal employee unions a chance to negotiate on the implementation of the change. As many federal labor negotiations can take years, there is little doubt that some of the negotiations will not be concluded within six months. Presumably, taking several years to negotiate on the change won’t delay the implementation of the new GSA policy after the six-month built-in delay. (See Moving Toward a Government-Wide Ban on Smoking in Federal Buildings)

One question that smokers may have after reading this is obvious: “Where will the smokers smoke?”

That isn’t clear. Perhaps some agencies will build a covered lean-to away from the building where smokers can walk, run or amble to emulate the Marlboro man. But, while that may work in areas where there is plenty of land around, and the federal building is not hemmed in by city streets, what about the bulk of federal workers who work in downtown Washington, New York City or San Francisco?

Perhaps some agencies will negotiate with the union to buy a bus to haul the smokers away from the area a couple of times a day to satisfy the urge to smoke. That solution may work although the productivity of the employees boarding a bus to get away for a smoke may suffer and, no doubt, some employees left behind at their desks  will want to take similar breaks.

The new policy may test the ingenuity of some agencies and unions. In any event, the GSA bulletin does not provide a solution other than to stop smoking. “The heads of executive agencies are encouraged to use existing authority to establish programs designed to help employees stop smoking. Cessation program materials for agencies interested in establishing a smoking cessation program for their employees are available from the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention….”

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