The trials and tribulations of the workplace smoker

The 21st century is a dark place for smokers. (Photograph: http://www.luminous-landscape.com.)

THE text message that chirruped onto my cellphone as I headed to a meeting in the centre of town one blustery, wet morning read, “Call me when you’re five minutes away”.

Assuming my call would signal my client to take the lift nine floors down from her office to reception to sign me in, I thought nothing of it. I was surprised then, when, having barely pushed ‘dial’, I turned a street corner towards the building and she stepped in front of me.

“Hello,” she said. “I needed a cigarette before you arrived.”

That’s when I noticed the smoky little cluster of people behind her. Shoulders hunched and heads drooping like a huddle of horses in a rainstorm, they slouched awkwardly against the metal gate of a parking garage, sucking sadly on their cigarettes.

“It’s tough being a smoker these days,” I observed, as we walked on.

“You’ve no idea,” she grumbled. “We used to smoke outside the front door but that’s now illegal. These days we have to move far away and hide wherever we can. It’s no longer a smoke break: it’s a strategic expedition that keeps me away from my desk much longer than it used to.”

According to research conducted in the UK in 2008, the average smoker spends almost a year of their working life on cigarette breaks and three 15-minute smoke breaks a day cost employers 195 working hours a year per worker. A similar study carried out in Taiwan this year claims that an employee who smokes four cigarettes a day during work hours costs his or her employer about US$1 886 each year.

So, what’s the solution? Stop your employees smoking?

While amendments to the Tobacco Control Act that came into effect in 2009 make it more difficult for South Africans to smoke and companies are encouraged to produce written policies on smoking in the workplace, smoking is not prohibited outright by organisations in this country. It is not, however, inconceivable that this won’t change.

In Australia, a ban on health department employees smoking during work hours or “when representing the department in any capacity” came into effect in February 2010. Although it’s been criticised by, among others, the Australian Council of Civil Liberties for being “excessive and heavy handed…people who are addicted to smoking would be, in effect, forced to have an uncomfortable, and some would say worse than uncomfortable, working day simply because they’re employees of the health department”, anti-smoking campaigners hope it’s the first step towards a nationwide ban on public servants taking smoke breaks.

I am not a smoker but I’ve survived enough addictions of my own to sympathise with those who are.

Last year, I flew from Johannesburg to Atlanta with a colleague who is a pack-a-day puffer. I saw nicotine withdrawal transform Little Miss Muffet into Jack-The-Give-Me-A–Frigging-Smoke-Now-Ripper in 16 hours. She told me, sobbing wildly as we sprinted from the airport, that when she needs a cigarette, she cannot think of anything else – so much for increasing productivity by making it more difficult for smokers to light up during work hours.

Then there’s the recent report from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics that suggests that smoking bans at work may lead to more obese employees.

“The original goal of workplace smoking bans is to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke. However, the findings from this study point out this policy may bring an unintended consequence – rising obesity,” says the report, suggesting we’re caught between a smoke and a lard place.

Some claim electronic cigarettes are the answer. Because there is no tobacco involved, legislation permits the product to be sucked upon anywhere. The World Health Organisation however, has issued a cautionary against it saying, “The vapour which a user exhales is not water vapour. It is not harmless and can contain carcinogens and other poisons.”

“The only solution,” said my client, accompanying me out of the building after our meeting (so that she could hunker down for another smoke), “is to designate 25% of the company’s building a smoke-full zone and let us smokers happily and productively puff-away all day at our desks. That’s legal, isn’t it?”

(First published in Business Day in 2010.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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