Are Smoke Breaks Fair for Non-Smokers?

It’s fairly common for businesses to provide employees who smoke with “smoking breaks” throughout the day, usually something along the lines of five minutes every hour or so. Employers and employees are likely aware of smoking’s lethal effects, but asking an employee to simply quit “cold turkey” can create agitation and withdrawal on their end, which often causes subpar working performance. As a result, smoking breaks have become a fairly common fixture in the American workplace.

These smoking breaks occur outdoors, often far away from any patrons, during a time in the shift when it’s not busy. That isn’t an issue, but non-smokers do have a fair gripe if they are not permitted the same break time as smokers.

Do Non-Smokers Have to Pick up Smokers’ Slack at Work?

During a 7-hour shift, a waiter might take a five minute smoking break each hour, which results in 35 minutes of on-the-clock break time. If a non-smoking employee is making the same wage is not entitled to the same 35-minute break per shift, simply because they do not smoke, it’s easy to see why they may consider it unfair. In fact, some could even call it discrimination since smokers are provided extra free time due to a vice, while non-smoking employees have to compensate for the smokers’ time lost because they are not addicted to nicotine.

Creating Two Tiers in the Workplace: A Bad Idea

A great employer does their best to ensure equality throughout the workplace. An employer ideally would not assign hours or responsibilities based on one’s favorite sports team, ethnicity, accent or other personal variable, so how is a vice or hobby like smoking influencing hours and responsibility?

Understandably, the topic of smoking can be a sensitive one, especially as many smokers are aware of the dangers and are trying to quit. The problem is, quitting something extremely addictive — like nicotine — cannot simply be forced. Employers recognize this and many would rather give their employees an extra half-hour of downtime per day than deal with the potentially awkward confrontation. Unfortunately, this can be by perceived by non-smokers as being preferential toward smokers, creating a very undesirable two-tiered employee structure that can alienate one section of employees and result in poor work output.

The Suave Depiction of Cigarettes is Not Dead

In the days of Mad Men, in the ‘60s and ‘70s when cigarettes were portrayed as cool and trendy, it’s easy to see why workplaces would accommodate smoke breaks; smoking was becoming a mainstay in society and was perceived as “cool” rather than cancer-inducing.

In the age of technology, e-cigarettes are the new cool. Just take a look of some of these flavors from East Coast Vapor and you’ll understand why these are becoming more prominent with younger workers. Flavor choices include Coffee Toffee, Grape Bubblegum, Peaches & Cream, and more.

What’s the Potential Solution?

Ideally, smokers should use their allotted lunch break to get their nicotine fix in. If that’s not possible, foregoing a conventional lunch hour in favor of structured mini breaks could be done for flexible job positions, which would ensure that employees are sacrificing their lunch hour minutes in order to smoke as opposed to simply meandering during a time where they should be working.

If smokers were able to trade lunch minutes for smoking break minutes, non-smokers would likely be much less upset, as everyone would be working equal hours instead of smokers working less due to their habit.

If you own a business, how do you handle smoke breaks? Let me know in the comments!


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