Study Finds U.S. Food Service Workers' Health at Risk: Food Service Workers Still Exposed to Carcinogens at Work

April 13, 2004

Contact: Cynthia Hallett, (510) 841-3032

Berkeley, CA - A study released today finds that, of all occupational groups, food service workers are the least protected from secondhand smoke exposure at their workplace. Less than half of the nations 6.6 million food service workers reported having a smokefree place of employment, compared to over 75% of all white collar workers, including 90% of teachers.

"Smoking was eliminated from all commercial airline flights in the U.S. more than a decade ago because of concern for the health of flight attendants," said Dr. Karen Gerlach, a co-author of the study. "It's time we extend that same level of protection to the nearly seven million food service workers in the country."

The study, "Disparities in Smoke-free Workplace Policies Among Food Service Workers," ranked 38 major occupations on the basis of protection from secondhand smoke exposure through smokefree policies. Researchers found that white-collar workers, such as teachers and health care providers, have the greatest protection on the job, while food service workers fall at the other end of the spectrum.

Unfortunately, the same laws that provide for smokefree office workplaces and public places often neglect bars and restaurants, leading to a discrepancy in worker exposure to secondhand smoke. Even worse, the study found that the gap is not closing quickly enough. Food service is the fourth largest occupation in the United States, and the sector is growing. Millions of service workers are unnecessarily exposed to secondhand smoke.

"The tides are shifting," said Cynthia Hallett, Executive Director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, "but this study serves as a wake up call. Far too many service workers are left unprotected from secondhand smoke."

The trend toward local smokefree air laws is rising. Currently more than 1,700 U.S. communities and several states have passed smokefree workplace laws. Secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in this country, killing 53,000 nonsmokers each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. It is a leading cause of heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory illnesses. Subsequent extensive research confirms that there are significant health benefits in communities with strong smokefree laws, including decreased heart attacks and a drop in smoking rates. Exposure to secondhand smoke in the workplace is an occupational health issue, and smokefree laws are designed to provide a safe and healthy place of employment for all workers.

"Workers expect to bring home a paycheck," said Hallett, "not heart disease and lung cancer."

The study also found that compliance with smokefree policies was very high; only 3.8% of workers reported that someone violated a smokefree policies. "This makes sense," said Hallett. "It is much easier to understand and comply with a 100% smokefree law rather than one that has sections or makes special exemptions."

The study is published in this month's issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Authors include Donald R Shopland, formerly of the U.S. Public Health Service; Christy Anderson and Dr. David Burns of the University of California at San Diego; and Dr. Karen Gerlach of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Findings were based on interview responses to the Current Population Survey (CPS), the main information source for labor force statistics in the United States. Authors reviewed 250,000 responses from workers interviewed between 1993 and 1999.

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights is a national, member-based, not-for-profit organization based in Berkeley, CA dedicated to helping nonsmokers breathe smokefree air in enclosed public places and workplaces.

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