They smell, they keep taking breaks and, worst of all, they bond. But the latest thinking is that smokers' networking can benefit everyone, reports Bill Saunders
Nobody loves a smoker - quite literally. The up-market dating agencies are doing everything to discourage smokers from signing up with them. "It is something we have to be very firm about at the first interview," says a consultant at Drawing Down The Moon, a highly exclusive introduction agency.

Not even smokers want to meet other smokers, because, as soon as they are swept off their feet, they intend to give up. When not even the lonely hearts club will have you, you really are officially sad.

Nevertheless, in spite of their limited opportunities for breeding, smokers are still with us. The National Statistics Office's General Household Survey (1996) shows that while smoking has declined dramatically, that decline has levelled off. We are down to the hardcore now, but that hardcore is still recruiting. The highest proportion of smokers is found amongst those in their early twenties, and the number of women smokers is rising slightly. Contrary to the myths, the employed are more likely to smoke than the unemployed. And that leaves workplaces with a political hot potato with the potential to make ordinary office politics look like small fry.

With over 20 per cent of people at managerial level smoking, smokers remain a significant minority in the offices they share with the 40 per cent of the population who has never smoked and the 32 per cent of men and the 20 per cent of women who are ex-smokers. (Figures for people who only smoke other people's cigarettes in the pub do not appear to be available.)

These days, you'd be hard pressed to find an office where smoking is tolerated without question, though there are those offices - such as those of some newspapers - where an uneasy truce has been arrived at and local, desk-by-desk rules prevail. But although smokers almost universally accept they must now take their habit outside, this in itself is a cause of friction. A recent survey conducted by Nicorette, the nicotine patch people (whose investigation was no doubt entirely inspired by disinterested scientific curiosity), discovered that even the abject surrender of smokers is not enough for their colleagues. 45 per cent thought smokers should have their pay docked for their five-minute absences and 58 per cent thought that smokers hanging around the doorway was bad for their company's image.

A glance down any alley in any city during business hours will confirm the impression that smoking bans are now the norm, but hard evidence on the extent of smoke free workplaces is hard to gather. Interestingly enough, what little there is indicates the trend may have peaked. FOREST, the campaign group for smokers' freedom, report that hospitals, which pioneered smoke-free building policies a decade ago, are starting to relent and reintroduce designated smoking areas. "Having experienced the problems created by prohibition at first hand, personnel managers have put pressure on medical managers to adopt a more flexible approach," according to FOREST.

Yet smoke-free buildings march on, and the policy is spreading into places of entertainment. When the newly refurbished Sadlers Wells Theatre reopens in London on 12 October it will be smoke-free. Or smoke-free as far as the public is concerned. Behind the scenes there will be a smoking room for the dancers. A spokeswoman for the theatre explains the concession has been made because, while the public will only spend two hours in the building at the most, the dancers are there day and night and spend much of their time on the premises in fancy dress. They cannot go out in costume and it might be disappointing if they did. The sight of Giselle puffing her lungs out on the pavement during the interval would let too much daylight in on the magic. "The fact is that lots of dancers do smoke" she says. "Actors, too," she adds.

And there is one of the understated problems of smoking. Yes, we all know Humphrey Bogart died of lung cancer, but smoking remains associated with the bohemian, the creative, the glamourous. The association remains because it is founded on truth. Nobody in artistic circles waves their hands and starts coughing pointedly when someone lights up. Wild woman Tracey Emin will not touch caffeine, "as bad as cocaine" in her opinion, but she is often to be seen with a pack of Marlboro Lights in her Waterloo Road Gallery. The Groucho Club's attempt to introduce a non-smoking room failed dismally: however crowded the rest of the club, nobody went in there.

Models are notorious for smoking, too. A spokeswoman for supermodel agency Storm concedes that many of the girls who come to them are smokers and that the proportion is on the increase. She attributes this to demographic trends rather than any spurious glamour. "Models are getting younger," she says, "and more young girls are smoking." It is a trend Storm deplores, she adds, and she wants it to be a matter of public record that the agency regards smoking as "a disgusting habit". Their own smoking policy is draconian. Nobody is allowed to smoke within ten metres of the building. So if you see someone exceptionally good looking wandering Covent Garden in the rain with a fag in their hand, you'll know where they work.

Does anybody have a good word for smokers and their habit? Well, yes, sort of. Melissa Golding is a personnel manager with Emap Elan. the publishing company responsible for such glamour bibles as Elle and FHM. Like everyone else, she is not happy with the image that smokers in the doorway reflect on the company. Long ago, Emap Elan had a smoking room, "but it became so disgusting that not even the smokers would go in there," she says (though yellow walls and permanent fug have, as yet, failed to deter those here at the Independent). In any case, her company's recent move to Shaftesbury Avenue makes it unlikely that it will dedicate highly expensive office space to a smoking room in the near future.

Nevertheless, from the personnel point of view there is a bonus to be gained from smokers huddling in the doorway: smokers network. In a publishing company, for example, says Melissa Golding, employees tend to identify with the magazine they work for rather than the organisation as a whole. Informal smoking breaks are the perfect way for people to make friends across titles.

Furthermore, relationships within magazines are not always harmonious. There is usually a traditional and ill-tempered hostility between journalists and advertising sales staff which is only tempered by a mutual loathing of the promotions department. Journalists think the advertising people would sell their own souls, the advertising people believe the journalists already have. (Incidentally, this is why landing a job in advertising sales on a publication is the worst possible way to attempt to break into journalism. You may be forgiven for the odd armed robbery in your past, but for selling Classified: never).

While Melissa Golding acknowledges that life has not always been sweetness and light in the publishing industry as a whole, this culture is rapidly changing at Emap Elan. Different departments are brought together for strategy days to promote team working. But, asked if the friendships struck up smoking in the street are helping matters, she replies with an enthusiastic "Definitely". When you have stood squeezed shoulder to shoulder with someone with your backs against plate glass in the sheeting rain, you form a bond.

In the United States, the problems of communication between the different departments of organisations are beginning to be taken very seriously. The trend for impersonal hot-desking, where employees do not necessarily sit in the same place every day, is on the wane. Imaginative human resources departments are steering corporations towards informal office design. Sofas are placed in corridors, chairs by water coolers, to encourage interaction. But a minority of their workforce is already way ahead of them, perched uncomfortably on fire escapes, sharing umbrellas, or walking the streets together. Despite the rebellious image, smokers have yet to unite, but under the prohibition of smoking they have unwittingly been united. Ironically, the most despised section of the workforce appears to be at the forefront of the most innovative way of working.