Workplace Culture

Hold Your Breath No Longer — Good News From the Tobacco Industry

By James Tehrani

Oct. 29, 2014

Let me sugarcoat this as best I can: I detest the smell of cigarettes, and as an asthmatic, I especially abhor any secondhand smoke entering my body.

Cough. Gag. Wheeze. Wheeze. Hack.

That said, I’m about to write something I never thought I’d write: Way to go, Big Tobacco!

After years of reading negative articles and watching movies like “The Insider” that detail various clouds of smoke hanging over the cigarette industry, the news that Reynolds American, one of the largest U.S. tobacco companies, has decided to ban cigarette smoking in its offices is a breath of fresh air. The ban will start in January and will be phased in through 2016, according to Bloomberg.

It’s hard to fathom, I know, but a tobacco company that in the 1950s touted its Camel cigarettes as smokes that “agree with your throat,” now seemingly agrees that some nonsmoking workers don’t want smoke going down their gullets.

Some people will say this is “ironic” or “hypocritical” for a tobacco company to ban smoking on-premises when its business is to sell the nicotine-based products to consumers, but I say there’s no cloudy judgment here.

This is good for the long-term health of the company and especially its workers. You want to keep insurance costs down? Get people to stop smoking. If that’s not possible, then at least discourage smoking by making it a chore to go smoke. You want your best workers to stay with the company and retire healthy when they get to an age where they can claim Social Security? Encourage them to stop smoking. If you can’t do that, then at least do your best to keep smokers away from the nonsmokers by making the smokers step outside.

How can a company like Reynolds tout on-site health clinics as part of its benefits plan, for instance, if someone’s smoking in the same building? “So, how long have you had that cough, Terry?” “Oh, just since Joe lit his cigarette over there.”

I’ve worked at a couple of places that allowed smoking. As I’ve previously written, I worked as a waiter. At the time, cigarette smoking was allowed in Chicago restaurants. Most of my colleagues smoked and quite a few customers did, too. Now the city doesn’t allow cigarette smoking in restaurants, and Chicago even recently banned e-cigarette “vaping” in restaurants as well. Then, at my first office job, we had an art director who was near retirement. He had worked in Don Draper-like offices his whole career, so smoking was part of his daily work routine. He’d sit in the back room puffing away on a pipe most of the day while he laid out and designed pages for the magazines.

To be honest, I don’t know how nonsmokers worked in the offices of the early to mid-20th century, when many more people smoked cigarettes. And I can’t even imagine what it was like to be a flight attendant in the ’60s,’70s and '80s being bombarded by smoke in the cabin. I cough just thinking about it.

I, for one, have my version of a “nic fit” when I’m walking to or from my office and someone in front of me lights up or puffs away seemingly oblivious about where the smoke goes. Perhaps some smokers experience schadenfreude when they nail a nonsmoker with a plume of smoke. I don’t know, but it seems that way. “If you don’t like my smoke, then don’t walk behind me” might be the prevailing attitude.

Yes, but it’s not so simple in a city where people are often pancaked together in lockstep.

Fortunately for Reynolds’ nonsmoking employees, they soon won’t have to play the “Dodge the Smoke” game in their offices.

So kudos to Reynolds American. It appears the cigarette-maker is giving its workers a breather in hopes of promoting a healthy workplace.

Now the question is: Will others tobacco companies follow suit when the puff of grayish-white smoke finally disappears at Reynolds?

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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