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No more huddled masses of smokers outside federal agencies

August 5, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The federal government is telling its workers who smoke to take a hike. They are being shooed away from building entrances under rules taking the tobacco fight outside.

That’s a relief for people like Annie McGarrah, an intern with asthma who looks forward to eating lunch outdoors, free of the fumes of clustered smokers.

It’s a stultifying development for some of the liberty-loving people at the Voice of America, where memories are fresh of repressive homelands and the way officials there tried to control behavior.

``We are very suspicious of these little things,″ says Czech native Jarmila Cech, smoking outside the building where VOA radio broadcasters speak of American freedom to the world. ``Then it will be something else. Junk food? Fast cars?″

President Clinton is expected to sign the order this week banning smoking in and outside most federal buildings around the country. Most agencies already limit indoor smoking but few have tried to do the same outdoors.

Just how far smokers will need to go for a puff remains uncertain. An early draft of the rules would have banned smoking within 50 feet of buildings, putting some smokers literally on the street.

Now each agency is expected to be ordered to set up its own no-smoking policy for its entrances.

The rules apply only to the executive branch. In Congress, smoking is restricted in the House but widely allowed in Senate hallways and offices _ ``a smoker’s paradise,″ anti-tobacco Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., calls them.

Outside the Health and Human Services Department, where the many smokers stand in contrast to the agency’s health mission, management analyst LeVern Dickson took a drag and asked, ``What happened to my freedom?″

``I guess we’ll all be sitting on the Mall instead of working,″ he said, calculating it will take him 10 extra minutes per smoke break if the new rules force him to cross the street and find a bench on the grassy Mall.

Some smokers were surprised the government would try to control their behavior outdoors, away from the confines that generate the most concern about secondhand smoke.

But there was also a sense that anti-smoking rules are becoming inexorable, and applied without much courtesy. Ashtrays outside federal buildings state in bold letters: Butt Out Here. There is no please, no thank you.

``It’s a form of harassment, really,″ said Lillian Logan, a clerical staffer puffing at the entrance to the Education Department. She usually skips lunch time so she can take more smoke breaks through the day.

But some non-smokers resent having to run a gamut to and from work, and welcome the ban.

``It’s an excellent idea,″ said Ms. McGarrah, who faces a cloud of smoke outside HHS’ health care policy branch in Rockville, Md., where she normally works, and again outside the Washington headquarters when she visits.

``It bugs me that I can’t sit outside for lunch,″ she said of the smoking. ``Plus, I have asthma and I think it’s gross.″

``In the wintertime, I’ve seen the huddled masses lighting up,″ Lautenberg said. ``It’s unpleasant to have to walk through it.″

Indoors, the ban would apply to all areas except the few that are separately ventilated outside. A survey of federal agencies by Lautenberg showed most have already cracked down on smoking.

But the survey found smoking was still allowed by the Commerce Department in private offices and cafeteria areas, by Veteran’s Affairs for psychiatric and chronic care patients and by the Federal Trade Commission in designated areas, among other agencies.

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