The smoking police sharpen their powers

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The Independent Online

If you don't already feel persecuted for being a smoker you will do soon for employers are set to become the new cigarette police.

If you don't already feel persecuted for being a smoker you will do soon for employers are set to become the new cigarette police.

Among companies clamping down on puffers are Thurrock Council - which has demanded that smokers work an extra two and a half hours a week - and Welwyn and Hatfield Council - which has attempted to ban a crafty fag even outside its buildings. Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Commission is about to publish its code of practice on passive smoking which will urge a complete ban on workplace smoking across the land. It could come into operation next year.

Phil Rimmer, workplace specialist for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), says: "When there's a separate room off the office for smokers, the door is inevitably left open. Anyone walking by can do themselves damage. The same applies to offices where there's a ban inside and staff huddle around the entrance. Passive smoking is proven to be harmful, and with increasing legislation, non-smokers will have increasing rights."

He adds that if someone smokes nine cigarettes a day and takes 10 minutes away from their desk for each one, that equates to nearly one working day a week. "This can create office friction because non-smokers wind up working longer for the same pay. It's also unfair on their employers who lose out on productivity. Businesses are beginning to recognise these facts."

A new report by a team from York University and Guy's Hospital, London, has identified that workers who smoke cost British business more than £100m a week in lost minutes for breaks, absences from work due to smoking-related illness, and fire damage caused by carelessly discarded cigarettes. It even estimates that an additional minute is wasted for every cigarette smoked in cadging from colleagues and searching in bags for matches.

Companies may also feel under pressure to pre-empt litigation, says Tricia Jackson, a training and personnel consultant. "The threat of legal action by employees who feel they have not been protected from environmental tobacco smoke is greater than ever," she claims. "Employers are getting scared of being sued."

Nevertheless, Martin Ball, campaigns director for the smoking pressure group Forest, claims this latest battle against smoking is not a foregone conclusion. "A recent World Health Organisation report revealed that the risk of passive smoking to non-smokers is 'statistically insignificant' - something that many non-smokers accept," he says. As for the argument about breaks, "a chat by the coffee machine, a private phone call or a gossip in the corridor can all take just as long".

In fact, he argues, informal breaks are essential for staff morale and actually increase productivity in the long run. He points to a survey by opinion pollsters Taylor Nelson which found that two out of three non-smokers believe there should be some provision for smokers in the workplace. In some cases, the report adds, non-smokers have helped smokers in their fight against being forced to leave the building or having to work extra hours. "Non-smokers recognise non-smoking policies as discrimination and wonder who'll be targeted next," says Mr Ball.

York University's report also acknowledges that there may be positive effects on workplace performance associated with cigarette smoking, including improvements in concentration and reduced stress levels.