UK: TIME FOR A SMOKE BREAK. - How to keep smokers and non-smokers happy and healthy.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How to keep smokers and non-smokers happy and healthy.

The anti-smoking lobby continues to gain ground. In the early 1980s barely 5% of UK companies had any formal policy towards smoking. Today, according to ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) nine out of 10 major companies have adopted some code of practice on smoking in the workplace. But bearing in mind that more than 25% of Britain's adults (and maybe 15% of professional workers) continue to smoke - and defend their right to do so - what attitude should the remaining employers take? Should they try to accommodate the needs of smokers as well as non-smokers? Or should they ban smoking outright?

Smoking is of course completely banned in many public places, including the transport systems operated by London's underground and bus services.

Barclays Bank went down this route a couple of years ago, putting a total prohibition on smoking inside its buildings. These days, if Barclays employees wish to light up they must take to the streets. The decision came out of a staff review and, according to PR manager Jane Vidler, there have been few complaints.

Not many employers have been as drastic as Barclays, even though the case against those who insist on smoking in the presence of others does appear to be strengthening. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that smoking-induced illness is responsible for at least 50 million lost working days a year.

'There is absolutely no dispute regarding the harm inflicted by passive smoking,' declares Amanda Sandford, senior press officer at ASH. 'The only dispute concerns the degree of harm.' Sandford argues that all the international evidence favours those pressing for restrictions on smoking.

Some organisations, including a bus company and a health authority in Australia, have successfully been prosecuted by employees claiming ill-health as a result of passive smoking.

Guidelines prepared by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) recommend that employers tailor their policies to the needs and wishes of both smokers and non-smokers among their employees. This is, in effect, what most companies do. The smoking policy commonly adopted in the UK, says Mark Wheeler of the Health and Safety Executive, is to insist that all work and open areas are smoke-free, while designating certain rooms or other areas as places where people may smoke. 'It's rather harsh to ban smoking completely,' he maintains, 'and could result in the loss of skilled people.' The London Stock Exchange and the Bank of England have adopted this kind of partial ban. The 900 staff at the Stock Exchange accepted a ban in all common areas three years ago. 'The question was discussed by the safety committee, the personnel department and staff. Everyone knew what was going to happen and the policy has been generally accepted with no great problem,' reports press officer Clare Allison.

Even ASH is in favour of canvassing staff attitudes and communicating the results to the workforce before phasing in a generally agreed policy.

'Communication is the key,' says Sandford. 'Everyone must know what the rules are - whether there's a total ban or whether smoking is restricted to particular places.' The one policy to avoid is to permit smoking in certain areas of an open plan office. 'It just doesn't work, as smoke knows no boundaries.' The right solution, according to ASH, is to provide rest areas with separate ventilation (ensuring that stale air is not recirculated via the air-conditioning system), and to introduce a procedure which allows staff time off for smoking breaks.

No such corporate soul searching goes on at tobacco and financial services group BAT Industries, however. BAT does have a smoking policy, according to press officer Denise Hart. 'Our smoking policy is that staff can smoke as much as they like and wherever they like.' No shortage of ashtrays there.

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