Smoking ban irritates non-smokers


Tomorrow is National No Smoking Day but there is increasing concern that employees are taking smoke breaks while leaving their co-workers to pick up the pieces. Áine Kerr investigates

The employee who breaks for five minutes for a furtive cigarette five times a day, five days a week, may be spending over two weeks per annum away from their desk on cigarette breaks.

Workplaces where non-smokers frown on their nicotine neighbours and become increasingly resentful of the extra break-time they award themselves are now becoming an unforeseen result of the workplace smoking ban.

In the United States, non-smoking employees have become so aggrieved at the extra breaks taken by their smoking colleagues, that some companies are now offering non-smoking employees two extra holiday days per annum.

Last December, the World Health Organisation (WHO) banned recruitment of people who smoke. Justifying its stance, the organisation claimed it had a responsibility to implement and reflect the healthy principles it espouses in its recruitment practices.

So as we face into National No Smoking Day tomorrow, the question that begs answering is - what's the solution to excessive smoking breaks?

One suggestion is to impose limits on the number of smoking breaks, as is done with lunch breaks, holidays and non-certificate sick days.

According to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, an employee under current legislation is entitled to a 15-minute break after four and a half hours' work or 30 minutes after six hours' work. However, there are no guidelines available to employers on the question of controlling smoking breaks.

While it is widely acknowledged that the numbers smoking have dramatically decreased since the introduction of the smoking ban, it is debatable as to whether the unyielding smoker is taking fewer cigarette breaks.

The Small Firms Association (SFA), part of employers lobby group Ibec, is adamant that only companies which have not drafted a policy on smoking, encounter problems.

In tackling the issue of smoking breaks, employers should first outline their stance on smoking outside the work premises or in the vicinity of the work premises at the initial induction stage, according to the SFA.

Where necessary, an assistance programme should be offered to employees who smoke so that they might be encouraged to quit smoking.

The company policy itself should then state that smoking may only occur during scheduled breaks, and therefore emphasise that there is no such thing in the workplace as a smoking break, according to SFA director Pat Delaney.

The company should also clearly state at which location smokers may smoke - whether it is acceptable to smoke outside the work premises or in an area separate to the place of employment.

In the event of employees choosing to smoke on their scheduled break, the policy might also advise that employees cover their company uniform appropriately, says Delaney.

If the aspects of the policy are broken by an employee, then the company would be within its rights to impose disciplinary sanctions on the employee.

Delaney maintains that if such a smoking policy is correctly implemented, smoking breaks will not be a problem and will not occur outside scheduled breaks.

Many businesses now complain of workers gathered outside their premises smoking, according to the SFA.

"Staff who stand outside in company uniform is of increasing concern to employers as they are standing outside in numbers and not portraying a positive corporate image," says Delaney.

The issue of insurance also crops up.

"The question arises as to whether employees are allowed to leave the work premises without permission, because in the event of an accident, an employer may still be liable," says Delaney

With the advent of the WHO policy on recruitment, Prof Luke Clancy, chairman of anti-smoking lobby Ash, predicts that in future, many Irish employers will consider whether it is appropriate to employ smokers, when there is sometimes already a reluctance to employ people who suffer from addictions to alcohol or drugs.

However, he also points out that if employers were to recruit people who are specifically non-smokers, it might be perceived as discriminatory.

"I'm not aware of any Irish organisation using this policy, that's not to say that some aren't but in the future, healthcare organisations will have to consider the WHO policy because they are required to set an example to society."

In general, he believes that fewer people are smoking outside their work premises because of feelings of guilt, the cold weather and the possibility of being seen by employers.

Where excessive smoking breaks are occurring, it will regulate itself as the adjustment period passes, says Clancy.

Bank of Ireland, which employs 18,200 people, does not restrict the number of breaks a smoker can take, because its employees do not tend to exploit the flexibility of the arrangement.

A spokeswoman for the bank says that it gives consideration to the fact that just as someone may suffer from a sore back and need to stretch regularly, a smoker has an addiction, which they too must remedy.

Since the smoking ban, a "dramatic reduction" in the number of bank employees taking smoking breaks has been noted.

Tesco Ireland, which employs 11,800 people, states in its smoke-free work policy that staff who smoke cannot obtain extra breaks or add-ons to their allocated breaks.

Instead, if they must smoke, they may only do so within the normal break time.

The Irish Cancer Society's health promotion manager, Norma Cronin, believes it is important for employers to recognise that smoking is an addiction and to offer support to employees which might help them cease smoking. She estimates that 70 per cent of smokers still want to quit the habit.

The society believes that providing support and encouragement to employees so that they may cease smoking remains critically important.