Smoking ban proposed to protect employees in bars and restaurants

In November 2002, the Minister of Health presented a government proposal for a total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in Norway. Stricter legislative measures to combat passive smoking in bars and restaurants have long been an important priority for trade unions in the catering sector. If approved by parliament, the ban will come into effect on 1 January 2004.

On 29 November 2002, the Minister of Health, Dagfinn Høybråten, presented a government White Paper proposing a total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Stricter legislative measures to combat passive smoking in bars and restaurants have long been an important priority for trade unions in the catering sector. If and when approved in parliament (Stortinget), the revised Tobacco Protection Act, including a total ban on smoking in public places, would come into effect on 1 January 2004.

The main rationale behind the government’s proposal is to provide protection against passive smoking in bars and restaurants. Tobacco smoke is seen as a particular threat to the health and well-being of employees in such establishments, and it is also widely recognised that they enjoy relatively weak legal protection against such working environment hazards. The proposal is grounded in recent research carried out, for example, in the USA, which indicates that the health hazards related to 'second-hand' smoking are a lot more serious than previously thought. Employees in bars and restaurant run a much greater risk of cancer-related illnesses than those in other occupations. Furthermore, studies carried out in the Nordic countries indicate that male waiters have the highest concentration of cancer-related illnesses, in particular lung cancer.

This research, coupled with the fact that employees in the hotel and restaurant sector have a higher death rate (before reaching pensionable age) than most other groups of workers, has provided the government with an incentive to intensify efforts to provide a healthy working environment for employees in this industry. The minister argues that 'a total ban will have a positive health effect for employees in bars and restaurants and save employers' expenses, among other things in relation to sick leave.'

Although the Tobacco Protection Act has been altered several times since its introduction in 1973, the present legal framework is seen as incapable of providing sufficient protection. Today, catering enterprises are required to keep 50% of seats/tables free from smoke, and also to take preventive measures to keep smoke away from these areas. The regulatory framework was evaluated in 1999 and it was found that: it has proven too complicated to be satisfactorily enforceable; implementation has often been haphazard; and unequal implementation has lead to unjust and disadvantageous competition in the market. It is thought that the present regulations with regard to smoke-free tables do not provide protection for employees, but only customers. The government has thus come to the conclusion that a total ban is easier to control and enforce. The new legislative proposal recommends that supervision of the Act should remain with the municipal authorities, while the Labour Inspectorate should continue to be responsible for monitoring at the workplace.

In August 2001, the government asked a number of relevant organisations and institutions to comment on four different alternative measures to deal with the problem of passive smoking in bars and restaurants. A significant majority of these bodies were in favour of a total ban, and particularly the trade unions. The Norwegian Union of Hotel and Restaurant Workers (Hotell- og Restaurantarbeiderforbundet, HRAF) has had a ban on tobacco smoking as a main priority for several years, arguing that there is no alternative to a total ban. The focus of HRAF's work has been on state control and monitoring of the working environment in enterprises. As such, HRAF calls the government's proposal 'visionary' and 'brave', and does not believe that it will undermine employment in the catering sector. The proposal also enjoys the support of Norway’s largest trade union confederation, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO).

The minister of health argues that the proposal is very much a response to the demands from the unions for a right to a smoke-free work environment. However, the Norwegian Hospitality Association (Reiselivsbedriftenes Landsforening, RBL) - organising hotels, restaurants, catering and other food service businesses – opposes the proposal, and has pledged to carry out an intense lobbying campaign in parliament.

Passive smoking is an important issue in Norwegian working life, not least in relation to smoking at the workplace. More and more companies and organisations are introducing total bans on smoking within their establishments. The new proposal’s path through parliament will not be easy, and the result is not clear since several political parties have still to take a formal stance on the issue. However, there are indications to suggest that it will receive a favourable majority.

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