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Should Smoke Breaks Be Regulated?

Aug 17, 2007
It's a fact of life that smokers take more breaks than non-smokers during work hours. In 2000 a Lansing, Michigan Research firm surveyed 17 area health care systems and discovered that smokers averaged 3 smoke breaks per day, each 13 minutes long. Recently I asked 18 individuals enrolled in a tobacco cessation class about smoke breaks. Several of the pack-a-day smokers admitted to taking a break about once an hour. If each break takes an average of 10 minutes; some smokers in my class (mostly active duty military) might spend an hour or more some days just on smoke breaks.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), smoke breaks during work time are classified the same as any other kind of break, whether it's going for a glass of water, a cup of coffee, or a trip to the bathroom. While companies cannot ask an employee to clock out for a smoke break, they do have the right to regulate breaks. For example, an employer can dictate how many breaks their employees are allowed, and how long each break can be. Under the Working Time Regulations of 1998, an employee who works more than 6 hours per day is entitled to 20 minutes away from their workstation. That's it!

Some smokers argue that smoke breaks actually increase their productivity. A short break allows them time to generate new ideas. Designated smoking areas are ideal for networking, socializing, exchanging information, dealing with stress and boredom. The time spent away from the workstation is therefore still productive to a smoker.

Letting smokers have the freedom to take smoke breaks whenever they feel the need can backfire. Somebody will eventually abuse the privilege, and non-smokers will have a legitimate complaint. Not only that, according to the 2002 DoD Health Habits Survey, 30% of all tobacco users in the military started their habit after they joined. How many of those do you suppose started smoking just to get more time off from work?

Employers and supervisors should be sensitive to the smoking break issue and make sure that policies are in place allowing equal break time for non-smokers. Depending upon the work environment, it's a good idea for supervisors to put a limit on smoke breaks, perhaps even assigning specific times when breaks are allowed. One member of my tobacco cessation class belongs to a unit with a liberal policy that gives everybody, including non-smokers, a break once an hour.

Smokers trying to quit often find it difficult to give up their smoke break. In my classes, I ask smokers to practice giving up some of their smoke breaks in the days prior to quitting. They have the choice of either joining their smoking buddies and not smoking or just avoiding the whole scene. Not being able to give up the smoke break before quit day is a sure sign that they are not ready to be an ex-smoker.

A word to the wise: If you choose to continue smoking and are used to getting smoke breaks, don't abuse it by taking too many and staying away too long. Non-smoking bosses won't buy into the productive smoke break theory.
About the Author
Dave Elger is a well respected authority within the running community having written hundreds of articles on the topics of running and wellness. You can contact him at http://www.daveelger.com. He also supports the Okinawa Running Club
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