An ad ran in the newspaper the other day, paid for by a major tobacco company, lamenting the way that individual rights have gotten trampled in the crusade to prevent smokers from pursuing their legal vice.
Buried in the ad was a line about how the federal government was even reviewing a proposal that would restrict smoking in one's own home.Now I'm a smoker - a member of the only remaining minority which can be ridiculed and reviled publicly without fear of prosecution. But I also have some regard for truth. And plainly that claim in the ad was nonsense.
So I made a some telephone calls. The first was to the tobacco company that bought the ad, and I talked to a woman in public relations.
There really was such a proposal under discussion by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the PR lady said. It was part of a package of suggested measures for improving air quality in the workplace.
"But how would that affect me in my own house?" I asked.
"Well, if you hired someone to come in and work," she said, "and if that person objected to smoking, you might be classified as a workplace."
My next call was to OSHA. Rather, my next dozen calls have been to OSHA - the first to the agency's local office. The woman who answered seemed annoyed that I'd bothered her.
"Nothing's been decided," she said. "Anyway, we only make rules for the workplace."
"What if I have somebody work in my home - do cleaning, or fix the pipes or something."
"If you're a workplace, the rules would apply."
"What I'm asking is . . . "
"There's someone else I need to connect you to."
"Fine. Connect me."
"She's at lunch." It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon. "Call back around 4."
I did, but that other person was gone for the day. I got her the next morning. She didn't answer the question, but she gave me a Washington number to call. It was the Government Printing Office, and nobody there could help me unless I knew the title and number of the document I wanted.
Next I called Washington information and got the number for OSHA. The switchboard connected me to the public information office, and I put my question to the woman who picked up the phone.
"I can't answer that," she said. "I'll have to refer you to our public affairs specialist. She's on another line. If you'd like to leave your number, she can call you back."
She didn't though. Not that day, and not the next day. So I called again and asked for the public affairs specialist by name.
She was apologetic.
"I haven't forgotten you," she said. "The person I need to talk to about this is out of town."
"Are you saying there's only one person in all of OSHA who knows the answer to my question?"
"I guess I might be able to get to that person's boss. Look, I'll try. And one way or the other I'll call you right back."
She didn't, naturally, and I've given up.