In Defence Of The Smoking Break

Why a new attack on smokers is part of a much bigger problem

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So smokers are in the firing line again. With a social status currently nestling somewhere between pickpockets and ticket touts and already consigned to lurking in the city’s stairwells and fire escapes to eke out their noxious habit, they regularly stand accused of crimes that range from littering to manslaughter. Well, we can now add one more complaint to the list – they’re workshy too.

A report published this week claims that smokers cost the British economy £8.4bn a year in lost productivity, through the simple and time-honoured act of nipping out for a smoke.

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To ram the point home, that’s £1,815 a year’s worth of valuable desk-time for each full-time member of staff who lights up during working hours, or £25.91 per smoker every week. About the price of three packs of cigarettes.

Presumably they’ve also got the stats somewhere for how many pence each inhale costs, the extra time it takes to roll your own and those precious lost seconds of productive work when your lighter doesn’t work on the first go.

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The message is pretty stark: smoking’s not only bad for you but you know what, you’re kind of ruining it for the rest of us as well. While you’re out sunning yourselves in the alleyway, we’ll just pick up the slack shall we?

No surprise to see that the report was commissioned by the British Heart Foundation, who it’s fair to say might have a slightly vested interest in how smokers are perceived. Understandably you might say.

There is another, less alarmist view on the humble smoking break of course. That it’s just a variation on the screenbreak - which itself is actively encouraged in all other forms, a chance to give your eyes a rest, get some fresh (wrong word) air and return reinvigorated. Or at least less demotivated than when you left. It may even be sociable, people may even meet colleagues from other departments, hell they may even get a different perspective on a work problem they may never have had if they’d stayed rooted to their desks. Anyone who’s done a data-entry job or similar, often low-paid and requiring brain-melting repetition, knows the true value of a cigarette break. It’s not too strong to say it can remind you that you’re not part-robot. The report disagrees, naturally.

"While it may be argued that time spent on smoking breaks enhances productivity, providing an opportunity for refreshment and reflection, there is probably a decrease in productivity in the time before the smoking break which, on average, cancels out the effect, leaving the smoking break itself as lost productive time," it adds.

By that reckoning are we going to put a cost on people stopping for a chat in the work kitchen, the Facebook feed, the BBC news check or the mid-afternoon shop run? What happens if you’ve got a weak bladder? And every office has one guy who can’t stop with the relentless tea rounds. Aren’t these just necessary, inevitable and ultimately essential elements of the working day? We’re already working the longest hours in Europe with the greatest pay inequality  so maybe it’s wise to cut the workforce of Britain a little slack. Especially those at the lower end of the pay scale as this report is focusing on.

It’s only the latest example in a depressing trend to try to assess every element of human behaviour by what it costs the economy. The snow storms of 2010 apparently cost the UK economy £6bn, while the heatwave of 2012 saw us missing out on £211m a day. What does this even mean?

Surely we’ve advanced enough to realise that costing up every element of human behaviour like a shopping list isn’t going to do much for our wider well-being.

It gets cold. And sometimes it gets hot. And some people still smoke during office hours. Get over it.