Simon Chapman--Time to end smoking break exceptionalism
Date:2010-01-12 23:19 

It's about time smokers' breaks were curtailed to be the same as other workers - not whenever they feel the urge. Photo: Rodger Cummins
Many jobs require us to suspend various civil liberties during work hours: being at your desk to answer calls, wearing uniforms, greeting customers with mandatory inanities.

But ever since smoking started to be banned inside buildings from 1987, when Peter Wilenski first introduced them into the Commonwealth public service, smokers have assumed that they are an exceptional case.

Some argue that they should be allowed to leave the building to service their addiction, and allowed industrial privileges to stop work at will - a right not available to the 82 per cent of adults who don't smoke.
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Smokers shoot back that they are physiological nicotine addicts and need special policies to allow them extra breaks to self-medicate with nicotine.

Today's report in The Sydney Morning Herald brimmed with sympathetic quotes from civil libertarians and trade union officials - all framing smokers as desperate and addicted, almost akin to diabetics needing their insulin shots to get through the day.

This is so much soft nonsense, contradicted globally by the daily experience of hundreds of thousands of smokers as they suspend smoking for long periods when they take a transcontinental flight, work down mines, or attend movie marathons such as Lord of the Rings (three hours 20 minutes for Return of the King).

Some anticipate these smoke-free gaps will cause them problems and use nicotine replacement therapy, but most don't, knowing they can easily cope with sustained breaks.

With 90 per cent of smokers regretting having ever started smoking, many smokers are in fact grateful for policies that limit their smoking.

Talk of having to introduce quit smoking support groups is also nonsense. Decades of well-meaning attempts to run these have seen largely empty rooms. A tiny minority of smokers have the slightest interest in attending such courses.

All these breaks come at a cost.

A Victorian study of leaving the building to smoke, involving 42 medium-sized workplaces found ''smokers reported consuming an average of 5.4 cigarettes during work breaks, 3.5 of which were associated with deliberately seeking opportunities to smoke; 39 per cent reported leaving work to smoke one or more times per day during non-break periods''.

When you add transit time, smoking a cigarette takes about 10 minutes, so the 5.4 breaks a day adds up to just shy of an hour. Multiply that by 48 weeks a year, five days a week, and you get 216 hours a year – more than five weeks – that smokers get extra ''leave''.

I love good coffee. Should I be able to leave the building and walk 50 metres to my nearest cafe any time I want at my employer's expense? What about exercise ''addicts'' or mild claustrophobics? Why limit compassion only to smokers?

Things can go too far though. In 2005, the WHO announced that it would no longer employ smokers in any capacity (not just in its tobacco control division) - meaning those who smoked out of work hours.

Presumably, it would not matter to the WHO if the world's most potent health workers in malaria, HIV/AIDS or the prevention of injury smoked: they would no longer be welcome inside the world's peak health agency. This paternalism in wanting to stop smokers from harming themselves is presumably benevolently motivated: it is for smokers' own good.

Let us therefore assume that such benevolence extends to all avoidable causes of death, not just those caused by smoking (because if this was not the case, the WHO policy advocates would be nothing but single-issue moralists who cared about a cancer death from smoking, but not a cancer death from, say, sun exposure).

On the basis of this assumption, should we encourage the WHO to also refuse to hire tanned Caucasians (for sending the wrong message about skin cancer risk); people who rode motorcycles (hugely risky as attested by insurance premiums); anyone who chose to participate in extreme sports (eg: mountaineering, lone ocean sailing, base jumping where again the risks are immense); anyone who was overweight or obese; anyone who made a virtue out of not exercising; anyone who drank excessively after hours?


From:Sydney Morning Herald