British Anti-Smoking Group Threatens Lawsuits

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

London ( - Britain's main anti-smoking organization sent a letter to bar and restaurant companies Monday warning of civil legal action if they fail to protect employees from second-hand cigarette smoke.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said it was teaming up with one of the country's largest personal injury law firms, Thompsons, in an attempt to increase pressure on businesses to ban smoking.

The registered letter, sent to 170 companies, warns that employers who continue to permit smoking in their workplaces could be held liable for damages in civil courts.

The letter, which details the effects of and the chemicals contained in second-hand smoke, will be used to bolster any future legal case brought by employees.

"The time is long past when employers should have known that second-hand smoke is bad for their staff, and bad for the general public," said ASH Director Deborah Arnott.

"We will shortly be announcing further moves to encourage employees whose health has been damaged because their bosses allowed smoking in the workplace to begin legal actions for compensation," she said.

Under British health and safety regulations, ASH said, a "date of guilty knowledge" must be established, after which an employer who continues to allow an unhealthy or unsafe practice can be held liable.

An ASH spokesman said the organization's lawyers believe this date could be placed in the early 1990s at the latest, but that no legal precedent has yet been established under U.K. law.

Spokesman Ian Willmore said the letter was a "first shot" against the bar and restaurant industry and that ASH will most likely set up a help line for employees who believe their health has been damaged by smoke in the workplace.

"It's no better to expose an employee to carcinogens in a bar or a restaurant than it is to drop a brick on their head on a building site," Willmore said.

A ban, rather than segregated smoking and non-smoking areas or the installation of ventilation systems, is "the only satisfactory method" of protecting workers from smoke, Willmore said.

An umbrella association of industry groups, the Charter Group, insists that it has made progress in curbing the effects of tobacco smoke and in providing for non-smokers.

The group has instituted a voluntary code of conduct and has encouraged restaurants and pubs to post signs indicating the establishment's smoking policy.

One U.S. restaurant chain, Pizza Hut, has banned smoking in all its U.K. restaurants.

Simon Clark of smokers' rights group FOREST criticized the ASH letter. FOREST backs the Charter Group's code but is against mandatory smoking restrictions.

"We think it's an absolutely despicable tactic," Clark said.

"I think people in Britain are opposed to the litigious society that we see in America," he said. "What ASH is really saying to the hospitality industry is 'do what we say or else we'll sue you.'"

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.