Though secondhand smoke exposure in the workplace has improved since the 1980s, some groups have had comparatively little success in their efforts to avoid secondhand smoke. Blue-collar workers, service workers and construction workers continue to suffer particularly high levels of exposure.
In the last 50 years, around 2.5 million people have died from exposure to secondhand smoke, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General. When people can't avoid secondhand smoke exposure, they're more likely to contract respiratory infections or develop asthma, potentially missing significant amounts of work while they recover. Evidence also suggests a link between secondhand smoke and cancers, even in people who've never smoked, including lung, brain, bladder and stomach cancer.
As a union leader, you can help protect members by promoting a smoke-free environment in workplaces that haven't already embraced them. Here's how to educate members on smoking cessation, avoiding secondhand smoke in the workplace and seeking treatment.
Promote a Smoke-Free Workplace
It benefits members and their employers alike when businesses adopt a smoke-free policy for the workplace, even if their state isn't yet on board. As a union leader, you can share resources with your membership to support this goal. Start by arming your members with information they can take to their supervisor.
For example, employers may be more eager to act when they learn that secondhand smoke annually costs the U.S. economy about $5.6 billion in lost productivity. Workplaces without secondhand smoke also have more affordable cleaning costs, less maintenance and lower insurance premiums.
There are plenty of existing resources meant to help a company design and implement a smoke-free workplace. The American Cancer Society, for one, offers a free toolkit, "Smokefree-in-a-Box: A Guide for Companies Going Smokefree," while the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation has a free model policy for a smoke-free workplace.
Share Information on Smoking Cessation Programs
There are also plenty of organizations aimed at helping workplaces build smoking cessation programs to help members quit smoking for good.
The American Lung Association's Freedom From Smoking program is a highly effective program used by employers, hospitals and health plans that includes in-person, online and phone resources. Employers can tailor a program to their needs while also saving nearly $6,000 a year for every employee who quits smoking, the association says.
Additionally, all states have quitlines available in English and Spanish that are staffed by counselors trained in helping smokers quit. Conversations are confidential. If members prefer not to call, they can chat online with the National Cancer Institute LiveHelp and get information from a trained counselor that way. Counselors can help members manage withdrawal and cravings, suggest websites or apps that may help with quitting and create a personalized quit plan.
Educate Members on How to Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Even if a member's workplace is smoke-free, they could still be exposed to secondhand smoke in their personal life. Separating smokers from nonsmokers, leaving windows open and turning on air filters doesn't protect people from secondhand smoke's effects.
There are, however, steps members can take to avoid secondhand smoke. Advise members to not let colleagues or friends smoke in their home or car, even with the windows down. If a passenger has to smoke, recommend the driver stop so they can smoke outside the car.
If members are in a state that still permits smoking in public areas, they should also seek out smoke-free restaurants and hotel rooms. If a member's partner smokes, encourage them to provide their loved one with smoking cessation resources.
Simplify Seeking Treatment
Some members may have already noticed secondhand smoke's effect on their health.
Encourage these members to get prompt medical care. And, regardless of pressing health issues, members should keep up with their annual doctors' visits, including a yearly wellness exam. That helps doctors catch any health issues involving secondhand smoke quickly.
If there are members who need to see a specialist because of prolonged exposure, make sure they understand what is and is not covered under their health benefits. Members with chronic health issues due to secondhand smoke exposure may want to contribute the maximum to a health care spending account, if possible.
There's no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Along with educating members to keep them healthy, assess whether union leaders are setting the right example. Don't smoke or use any type of tobacco — not only will ditching the daily pack protect your own well-being, but it'll also help your members and their workplaces stay safe and productive as well.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.