Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York Connects Tobacco Control with Safe Working Environments

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Field of Work: Tobacco control in communities of color.

Problem Synopsis: People of color typically have higher rates of death and disease associated with tobacco use, according to research by the Praxis Project. However, relatively few tobacco-control policies have been enacted in communities of color. The vast majority of tobacco-control ordinances are enacted in small towns and suburban cities, rather than in the urban centers where people of color are more likely to live.

From 2002 to 2006, Policy Advocacy on Tobacco and Health (PATH), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), provided funding and technical assistance to nine community-based organizations to work on tobacco policy initiatives designed to restrict smoking at the local level.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York was initially formed to help find employment for the surviving workers of Windows on the World, the restaurant that had been at the top of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed on September 11, 2001.

An organization serving mostly immigrant restaurant workers may seem an unlikely ally in tobacco control. But the Restaurant Opportunities Center founders—Fekkak Mamdouh, who had been a waiter at Windows on the World, and Saru Jayaraman, an immigration attorney—saw a connection to their efforts to combat hazardous working conditions.

Synopsis of the Work: PATH implemented a comprehensive strategy to strengthen minority-led, community-based coalitions that engage in tobacco policy change in communities of color.

Restaurant Opportunities Center became a PATH grantee in 2003 and mobilized restaurant workers to testify at various events to prevent any weakening of the state's Clean Indoor Air Act.

Key Results: Jayaraman believes the Restaurant Opportunities Center's maiden voyage into tobacco advocacy delivers a strong message for the tobacco-control field. "I didn't know much about the issue before," she admits. "In some ways, there is such a separation between anti-tobacco advocates and the world of workers.

"I feel it is so critical that people starting a campaign like this in a locality start with workers. Begin by talking with workers. Don't end there."