MONTPELIER — A Bennington facility home to about 160 war veterans and their spouses will be the last workplace in Vermont to allow indoor smoking once a new law takes effect on July 1.
Gov. James Douglas signed into law this week a 100 percent ban on smoking in workplaces, closing the last loopholes in a public health movement that started with the state passing a partial ban in 1987.
The new law, which takes effect on July 1, prohibits smoking areas in Vermont businesses — typically a closed-off room in a workplace used by smokers during breaks, along with ending a rule allowing employees to vote to allow smoking at work.
"Vermont helped lead the way when we passed the workplace smoking ban in 1987," said Tina Zuk, the coordinator for the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont. "But now we will be the 24th state to pass a 100 percent workplace protection law when it comes to tobacco use."
The new law does contain an exemption for the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington. The state-run facility is home to about 160 people — war veterans and their spouses — and includes in its ranks many smokers who don't want to give up their indoor smoking room.
Colleen Rundell, the administrator of the Vermont Veterans Office, said she testified before legislative committees earlier this year that the Bennington facility was really more of a home than a workplace. The veterans are living out their lives at the facility, she said, and want to continue enjoying their cigarettes and cigars.
"Veterans smoke more than the average population," she said. "When they were serving in a conflict or war, the government actually gave them cigarettes in their rations."
Smoking bans are far less controversial than they were decades ago. Since banning smoking at businesses, Vermont, along with many other states, have banned smoking in bars and clubs, on school grounds and at fraternal and religious organizations.
Chris McCalla, the legislative director with the Columbus, Ga.-based International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association, said the only legislative movement in the direction of less regulation of tobacco use recently has been a committee hearing or two in some states.
"I think we've had some successes, but nothing has been passed yet," said McCalla, who said he favors a more Libertarian approach to smoking regulations. "There are some people in some of the states now wondering if they went too far."
Vermont is likely not one of those states. Advocates for greater public health control over smoking say the addiction kills about 900 Vermonters every year, while also being the single largest preventable cause of death in the state. More than $200 million is spent in the state every year to treat tobacco-related illnesses – including more than $70 million in the state's Medicaid program.
Chris Finley, the deputy commissioner at the Vermont Department of Health, said it is unclear how many Vermont businesses have designated smoking rooms (a 2007 study found 13 companies in the state with more than 1,200 employees had indoor smoking areas) – but she doesn't think it is too common these days.
Eliminating smoking in workplaces is an added incentive for tobacco users to quit, Finley said. A study five years ago found that 77 percent of smokers in Vermont don't allow smoking in their own homes, she said.
"This is a situation where public policy can affect the social norm," Finley explained. "Most Vermonters don't smoke and most smokers want to quit."
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@timesargus.com.
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