Your Tax Dollars Up in Smoke

The FDA wants you to know that smoking kills. Last month, the agency unveiled it’s latest effort on the war on smoking, a series of graphic cigarette warning labels. Next fall, your pack of Camels will be emblazoned with a photo of blackened lungs or rotting, nicotine-stained teeth, among other stomach-churning images. But there might be another way to combat smoking — by discouraging it in the workplace.

The modern office is a smoke-free environment. Those who need a cigarette must go outside for a “smoke break”. When you work for a company, taking lots of breaks adds up to a loss of worker productivity. But when you work for the government, all those breaks add up to a lot of lost tax dollars. Is there a difference between taking a break to walk or workout versus stepping out several times a day to smoke a cigarette?

Government workers have been wondering whether there is a double-standard when it comes to taking workplace breaks, with smokers taking more frequent breaks than non-smoking employees. Denise Petet, a media technician at the Kansas Department of Transportation, felt that frequent smoke breaks have become an accepted part of government workplace culture:

I also see smokers taking their breaks, it seems like all the time, but I’m sure [it] isn’t that bad. And yeah, as a non-smoker I feel a pressure to ‘cover for’ the smokers while they are out yet I am viewed as slacking if I want to take the same break from work. There seems to be a social and work place acceptance to those that need to get their nicotine fix vs. those that just need to step away from the desk and take a break.

Bryan Conway, a financial systems analyst for the Department of Defense, didn’t think that smoke breaks should be treated any differently from regular breaks:

In my opinion, smokers definitely are on break much longer than the nonsmokers. I work in a 40 story building with elevators that can take as long as 3-4 minutes to reach the ground floor smoking area. Taking 4-5 smoke breaks a day can easily add up to an hour or more. I think it is unacceptable to allow any additional time beyond the contractually allowed breaks for any activity, especially smoking!

Eliminating smoke breaks might discourage unhealthy habits as well as the slothful behavior Mark Kane, an employee with the Army, describes: “I knew people in the Navy who started smoking so they could get those breaks.” But smoking is addictive, unlike taking a stretch break or making a snack run. Mark Hammer, an analyst for the Public Service Commission of Canada, doesn’t think non-smoking employees are losing out by not being able to take more breaks: “If people are so overpowered by nicotine, that’s not a ‘right’ that you don’t get as a non-smoker. That’s time taken out when they could be doing the work that gets them lauded as productive.”

While you might not want to see your tax dollars funding government workers’ nicotine habit, it’s impossible to deny workers breaks completely. If the government wants to curb smoking, perhaps the best course of action is to encourage workers to do something healthy with their breaks. Jana Opperman, an environmental specialist at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, suggested giving employees a place to exercise instead:

If companies and government negotiate for us to pay more out of our income for health benefits, the least they can do with their “savings” is to provide exercise equipment for folks. Healthier workers use less sick time and use less health benefits, plus they think better when the blood is able to better circulate to their brains.

States like Massachusetts are working to combat tobacco marketing to teenagers, and federal workers currently enjoy expanded insurance coverage for tobacco cessation services. While these initiatives are important, cutting out the smoke breaks and encouraging government employees to stretch or walk during their regular breaks would be a great way to lower health care costs and increase productivity. If the FDA is going to invest in a new cigarette labeling campaign for the public, perhaps its time for government agencies to rethink the workplace smoke break.

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