A smokeless office - for smokers

BRITAIN'S BIGGEST tobacco company, stung by government moves to stamp out passive smoking at work, has created the perfect foil to its critics: a smoke-free office.

British American Tobacco commissioned a team of inventors to create special desks and computer consoles which literally suck cigarette smoke out of the air.

BAT's scientists have succeeded in making desks with hidden filtration devices which remove smoke particles from the atmosphere. The desks have mounted "air inlets" which are raised and protected by a "wall" so that workers cannot accidentally block them with files and loose papers.

Patents for "air treatment tables" were filed in December 1997 by BAT to stop other companies copying the invention. The company believes the table can be adapted for use in bars, shops and dining rooms.

"The present invention aims to provide a table in combination with air treatment means which provides improved air filtration efficiency," the patent says. "The table may be a dining table, a coffee table, a desk, a work bench, a bar, a counter, a console or similar."

The patent claims that the "air treatment" desk will be able to reduce by more than half the amount of smoke lingering in a room. Inventors have tested the device, which contains a removable filter cartridge, by leaving several smouldering cigarettes in a room and then evaluating the smoke that was left in the air.

"The peak value was obtained by lighting four cigarettes and allowing them to smoulder in the closed room," the patent says. "Without the air treatment means of the table in operation it was found that the control half-life was 55-60 minutes. With the air treatment means of the table in operation the half-life was found to be 13-15 minutes."

Cigarette companies have come under increasing pressure in recent years because of anti-smoking initiatives from health campaigners who want to reduce the incidence of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

The Government's recent White Paper on smoking and health earmarked millions of pounds for reducing smoking in the workplace. It said that health and safety regulations would be tightened up to stamp out passive smoking in the office and outlined initiatives to create more smoke-free zones in public places.

Earlier this month BAT announced plans for a pounds 15bn merger with another cigarette manufacturer, Rothmans. Staff at BAT insist that the inventions have nothing to do with passive smoking - more that cigarette smoke can be "annoying".

"This is entirely consistent with our view that the way to deal with this particular problem is with ventilation," said a spokesman for BAT. "While we do not believe that cigarette smoke can be a health risk, we recognise that it is an irritant to non-smokers. Anything that can be done to help on the ventilation front is worth research."

But anti-tobacco campaigners believe the "comic book" inventions by BAT are a tacit admission that they are losing the passive smoking argument.

"They are prepared to design ridiculous Heath Robinson contraptions to keep smokers smoking in a world that has had enough of passive smoking," said Clive Bates, director of Ash. "This is the smoker's accessory taken to its absurd logical conclusion."

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