30th November 1997


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When Sue sued a multinational giant

Your Health

By: Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

It isn't every day that a lone woman wins a fight against a giant multinational-chain ho- tel like the Hilton.

Utilising Australia's tough anti-disability discrimination laws, asthma sufferer Sue Meeuwissen, 35, successfully sued the Hilton Hotel in Sydney for failing to provide a smoke-free environment in its nightclub. This failure on the part of the hotel, she claimed, caused her to suffer an asthma attack when she visited the hotel.

In a landmark ruling handed down in Sydney last month, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) awarded Ms. Meeuwissen A$2000 in damages for "the serious physical distress'' caused her by the hotel nightclub's smoke-filled environment.

A sufferer from cystic fibrosis since birth who had come close to death on several occasions and endured years of ill health, Ms. Meuwissen was given a new lease of life when she underwent a double lung transplant at Melbourne's Alfred Hospital in 1994. She has since then completed her tertiary education and now does a full time job as an intramedia designer, creating web sites and CD-roms. She still, however, suffers from attacks of asthma - which are triggered off by tobacco smoke, to which her lungs are highly sensitive.

Visiting the Hilton's nightclub for the first time in March 1995 with a friend, lawyer Neil Francey, Ms. Meeuwissen was forced to leave when the enclosed environment of the club filled with cigarette smoke, caused her to wheeze and struggle for breath.

HREOC commissioner Graeme Innes in his ruling observed:

"The capacity for all Australians, with or without disability, to participate as far as possible in all aspects of community life must be the paramount consideration."

Australia has always prided itself on being a society where everyone is given "a fair go". Innes went on to say that asking anyone to put up with exclusion from normal social activities in the community because of a disability was unacceptable and abhorrent.

The anti-smoking lobby in Australia has heralded the commissioner's ruling as a decisive victory in the ongoing battle against passive smoking in restaurants, shopping centres and hotels. Says Anne Jones, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), "Ten percent of Australia's population suffer from asthma. This decision is a great win for them, because at present they are effectively excluded from attending hospitality venues that allow smoking."

The Australian Medical Association has greeted news of the decision with renewed calls for tobacco smoking to be completely banned in all public places. Children in particular are very vulnerable to second hand smoke, since their lungs are smaller than those of adults. According to Professor Peter LeSouef of the University of Western Australia' s paediatrics department, inhaling tobacco smoke exhaled by others in an enclosed environment increases breathing problems such as bronchiolitis and asthma in children.

In many parts of the world, children born with cystic fibrosis live a miserable life, many dying before they reach adulthood. Sue Meeuwissen has been through all the suffering that is the lot of cystic fibrotics - enduring years of medications and operations. There was a time when, as a 14-year-old weighing only 24 kilograms, she was confined to bed, being unable to move away from her permanent supply of oxygen.

Today, spurred on by the progress she has made in getting on top of her disability, Ms. Meeuwissen has become an active campaigner for human rights. Having been through so much, no one can doubt her credibility - or her commitment in getting a better deal for people who have suffered with disabilities such as she has had. At the last week's state elections in South Australia, she contested the Adelaide seat. Although she was unsuccessful, she certainly gave her formidable opponent, the sitting Liberal MP and Health Minister Michael Armitage, a good fight!

Ms. Meeuwissen has labelled the HREOC decision as a victory for human rights. "It has given me freedom and the chance to have a normal life,'' she says. "And I know that as a result of this decision, other people are going to suffer less."

The HREOC commissioner also awarded Neil Francey, with whom Ms. Meeuwissen went to the Hilton, A$500 in his ruling. By creating a situation where Ms. Meeuwissen was not able to stay in its nightclub, said the commissioner, her friend had also been subject to discrimination.

Being a lawyer, Neil Francey should be given the last word. "This decision", he says, "is a vindication for all those who are using legal avenues to fight against smoking in public places.''

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