How California’s Smoke-Free Workplace Law Fails Workers

Author Details

Rebecca Johnson

Policy Analyst
Organization: ChangeLab Solutions

Go to ChangeLab Solutions

For 30 years, California has led the crusade against Big Tobacco. The state blazed trails in tobacco control with bold media campaigns, smoke-free air laws, and tobacco taxes to fund public health. In 1994, when California passed its smoke-free workplace law, it became the first state to change its Labor Code to reflect the growing recognition that smoking in the workplace exposes people to toxic secondhand smoke. To protect workers, California amended its Labor Code to prohibit smoking in enclosed places of employment.

But the law didn’t cover all workplaces. The smoke-free workplace law left gaping holes in the Labor Code, and permitted smoking in hotels, cabs of trucks, warehouses, small businesses, long-term health care facilities, and outdoor places of employment. These holes have left many workers – hotel maids, truck drivers, nannies, orderlies, and construction workers – unprotected. The exemptions still exist today, even though more than 25 states and the District of Columbia have since adopted more comprehensive smoke-free laws.

Unfortunately, the law’s shortcomings disproportionately affect populations too often hurt by flawed and unfair policies. Many people from low-income communities and communities of color work in industries that are not protected under the law. Because the places where they work are not smoke-free, these groups are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke and residual toxins on surfaces (also known as thirdhand smoke) in hotel rooms, trucks, and even their employers’ homes.

An overwhelming number of hotel maids, nursing assistants, and home health aides are women from communities of color, and they can be exposed to secondhand and thirdhand smoke in hotel rooms, private residences, and long-term care facilities. Construction workers, laborers, and truck and trailer operators are predominantly male, and many come from African-American and Latino communities. They often encounter secondhand smoke while working outdoors and thirdhand smoke in truck cabins. Most of these men and women make between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.

These individuals are also hardest hit by the effects of tobacco usage. Due to policies that have let unhealthy environments proliferate in many communities, low-income individuals and people of color are more likely to smoke. Nearly 1 in 5 individuals who make less than $11,700 a year smoke; in contrast, only 1 in 10 individuals who make more than $34,000 a year smoke. Gaps like the ones found in California’s smoke-free workplace law support a vicious cycle: These workers are more often exposed to toxic secondhand and thirdhand smoke, and seeing others smoke may encourage them to take up or continue smoking, too.

Though widely considered to be an effective policy, the smoke-free workplace law fails millions of Californians. It exacerbates health inequities by continuing to allow smoking in industries dominated by those most likely to suffer from poor health. Closing the policy gaps will address a source of health inequities and be an important step toward reducing the burden of tobacco-related illnesses.

To learn more, see ChangeLab Solutions’ guide, Left Behind in the Smoke: How Exemptions in California’s Smoke-free Workplace Act Impact Health Inequities. Contact us for help making your community smoke-free.