‘Popping out for a smoke, back in 5 minutes’ – What does that actually mean?


I have recently enjoyed a lovely week off in Betws Y Coed and as I have two dogs when having a coffee or a bite to eat we generally sat outside (we had gorgeous weather) on one occasion someone stopped and started asking people for a light for his cigarette and suddenly it struck me how little you see people smoking anymore. As I watched the smoker in the crowd, I was reminded that when I was younger, offices, shop, hotel lobbies and of course pubs, often had a thick haze of smoke in the air and people would happily puff away at their desks. Now they gather outside in little bus shelters and building entrances to indulge.

This, by the way, is not a smoker bashing article, so if you are nicotine lover, please don’t sulk just yet. I was also a smoker for many years so it would be wrong of me to start giving other people a hard time about it.

Smoking though does have implications for others, and there seems pretty conclusive evidence regarding passive smoking and second-hand smoke. Even if there wasn’t a health question, it does have a very distinctive smell that some people find unpleasant and that alone is probably worth polite consideration. Whatever the ins and outs are though, they are a moot point now because smoking is banned inside public places and that is really an end to the discussion in practical terms.

However, while there are clearly fewer smokers in general, there are still significant amounts of people who do smoke. Watching that lone smoker in the crowd made me wonder how much working time a smoker loses each week. I found a couple of articles below that estimated it to around seven days a year. It’s a difficult problem, isn’t it? On the one hand, the choice to smoke or not is surely and individual decision but an extra weeks holiday a year hardly seems fair.

There is, as is often the case, a very big difference between the legal position and the actual day to day reality of the workplace. The legal position is a very clear series of ‘no’ statements. Can you smoke in the workplace? – No. Can you have a smoking room for employees? – No. In fact, it all boils down roughly two simple things that must happen in every work environment. Smokers must go outside to smoke, and there must be signs to say there is no smoking. You can smoke during work hours, in fact in principle you can do whatever you want in work hours as long as it is legal and contractually sound, but you can only do so on your official breaks unless, I suppose, there is an agreement with your employer that you can take your smoke breaks as you want.

The practicality of it is that instead of generating a thin blue haze in the office, the smokers pop out for apparently a total of 7 days a year. Which, as I said earlier, seems unfair and probably is. However, it’s really not that simple, is it?

Just before the complete ban came in most pubs, restaurants and even cinemas had smoking and non-smoking areas, and it seemed that invariably they were used less that the smoking ones. I remember being in a crowded pub which had a totally empty non-smoking area and wondering why the non-smokers didn’t use the area. She shrugged and said, “They may not smoke, but they know people who do.”

It’s probably the same thing at work. Most of us don’t want our friends and work colleagues to be uncomfortable so it’s unlikely that we will object to the little smoke break now and again any more than we would want them to object to the occasional emergency pop to the shop. We want our work place to be comfortable for everyone so we turn a blind eye I suppose and it may well be that that is acceptable practice.

If you were hoping this article would end on a solution or a clever answer, much like the poor smoker trying and failing to find a light in the crowd, I’m sorry I don’t think anyone has one.




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