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The nation’s most prosperous drug dealers — the tobacco companies — are on the defensive these days. After years of control over Congress and the White House, the once powerful tobacco lobby is under attack by forces determined in all kinds of ways to reduce the annual death toll of over 400,000 Americans from tobacco-related diseases. Whether from proposed higher taxes on cigarettes to help fund health insurance coverage, or the Food and Drug Administration’s investigation into nicotine levels added to cigarettes, or the Department of Defense’s banning of smoking in its far flung workplaces, the tobacco tycoons have their hands busy.

Businesses all over the country are declaring their workplaces off limits to smoking or providing a special space away from non-smokers. Municipalities and states are moving in the same direction. Clearly a tidal wave of backlash is building against tobacco.

Sensing the public’s will here, Cong. Henry Waxman and many other legislators are pressing to enact H.R. 3434, the Smoke-Free Environment Act, this year in Congress. Driven by government estimates that about 50,000 non-smokers lose their lives, and many more are rendered sick, by being exposed to tobacco smoking, the lawmakers want to ban smoking in all non-residential buildings. The one exception is for buildings that provide separately ventilated rooms for smokers.”

Lining up in support of the bill are groups normally opposed to each other. They include consumer and environmental groups along with the American Medical Association, the Association of Building Owners and Managers, the fast food restaurant association, life insurance companies, and many other businesses.

Why such an unlikely combination of support? Because there is overwhelming evidence that H.R. 3434 would save lives (between 38,000 and 100,000 lives a year later in the decade), save tens of billions of dollars a year in health costs and lost productivity and several billions of dollars yearly just in building maintenance and fire prevention.

All those cost-benefit gurus can’t rig this formula — the bill would cost less than $1 billion yearly for compliance expenses and over a hundred times that in benefits, not to mention the lives and illness saved.

Smokers would benefit because quitting their habit would become easier in smoke-free workplaces — at least they would smoke less. Teenagers on the average will be less likely to take up smoking. And the youngest children (under two years old), who come down with bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases from exposure to tobacco smoke, will be indirect beneficiaries.

The tobacco lobby calls the bill a “radical social experiment” and declares it an enforcement nightmare. How exercised the lobby becomes about legislation that means business about saving the lives of Americans and shielding non-smokers from the lethal effects of being forced to inhale others’ exhalations.

On March 22, 1994, the first vote on H.R. 3434 comes up in the House Health and Environment Subcommittee. Rep. Waxman believes winning this vote means overcoming the biggest hurdle to the legislation as it then winds its way through House and Senate. There are tobacco state Representatives on the Subcommittee.

Undecided members of this Subcommittee include Representatives Franks (R-CT), Faxon (R-NY), Klug (R-WI), Slattery (D-KS), Cooper (D-TN), Rowland (D-GA), Towns (D-NY) and, of course, the usually callous Dingell (D-MI), They need to hear from those of you inclined to be part of the drive for a smoke-free and cancer-less environment.