Feature

Days of the workplace smoker are numbered

Smokers who are able to enjoy their habit at work could be puffing on borrowed time if the results of a recent study lead to a change in government policy, writes Nathalie Towner.

Research by Stanton Glantz at the University of California found that total bans on smoking are more effective at making people reduce or give up smoking than raising taxes.

The study, which looked at workplaces in the US, Australia, Canada and Germany, suggests that if all offices banned smoking outright 4% of smokers would give up the habit and even really committed smokers would cut down on their daily consumption.

It also estimates that to achieve such results through tax increases would require a tax levy of about 70%.

Based on these findings, if legislation was passed, a total ban on smoking in offices would benefit both smokers and non-smokers.

A surprisingly large number of offices still allow smokers to puff away at their desks, with three million people exposed to passive smoking as a result.

There is no law to prevent this from happening. The best protection is the Health and Safety Act 1974, which requires employers to take adequate measures to ensure the health and safety of their employees. However, the Act does not make any specific reference to smoking.

There is some guidance in the Approved Code of Practice (Acop), which clarifies existing health and safety laws and applies them to passive smoking, but the Government has so far failed to make it law.

If Acop was made compulsory, employers would be required to introduce "reasonably practical measures", including providing adequate ventilation, segregating non-smokers and restricting the amount of time that employees are exposed to tobacco smoke.

Lobby group Action on Smoking and Health UK (Ash) says the Government has failed to ratify Acop because ministers have succumbed to pressure from small businesses and firms in the hospitality trade, which fear they will lose out financially if there is a total ban on smoking.

However, Ash spokesman Naj Dehlavi remains optimistic and believes it is only a matter of time before the Government takes action. "Attitudes are changing slowly," he says. "The Health and Safety Act was devised in 1974 and since then there has been more and more research proving the dangers of passive smoking.

"If you work in an office there is no good reason for the employer not to enforce a no-smoking policy."

Dehlavi often advises office workers who feel discomfort or become ill as a result of sitting near smokers. He recently gave advice to a man who was working in a small office with five other people, most of whom smoked. The man approached his manager because the smoke was making him feel unwell but all his boss did was to place a no-smoking sign on his desk and tell him jokingly that this was his smoke-free zone.

Non-smoker Frances Butcher knows from experience how unpleasant it is to work in a smoky office. "I have worked where smoking at desks is heavily prevalent, I don't like this because as well as your skin feeling clogged and other health worries it is embarrassing if you go to meetings smelling strongly of smoke," she says.

Surprisingly, most smokers agree with Butcher, 69% of those polled say they believe smoking should be restricted at work.

Developer and occasional smoker Jeremy Walden works in a non-smoking office. "I prefer it this way," he says. "I would not like it if the office was smoky all the time, and if I smoked at work I would probably prefer to go outside anyway."

How to set up a smoke-free workplace
  • Start by seeking a friendly compromise. Explain how you feel to your boss and ask for a separate smoking room to be set up

  • Find out if there is a smoking policy that is being ignored

  • Keep a diary of the times and places you have felt ill as a result of tobacco smoke

  • Point out to your employer that the evidence of passive smoking has grown stronger in recent years

  • If all of the above fails, contact your union representative or an employment law specialist for advice.

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This was first published in August 2002

 

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