Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Can You Really Still Smoke at Work?

At a large chunk of workplaces, it's legal, at least.

To many, the war on cigarettes ended long ago, when statewide bans swept the nation's bars and restaurants, relegating smokers to their apartments, if that. But there's one surprising place where a chunk of Americans are still free to smoke: the office.

Over half of the 376 organizations surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management permit smoking in the workplace. "In the workplace" in this instance can mean a variety of things, explains Evren Esen, the director of survey programs at SHRM. "It could be inside a garage, could be a room that is far away from other employees," she said. "Some companies are definitely allowing it, and permitting it in those designated places." 

Most Americans can't, in fact, smoke in the office. Many state bans, like New York's, for example, cover workplaces, and about half of the American populace lives in states or cities with all-encompassing workplace, restaurant, and bar bans. In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control declared a majority of workplaces in the largest U.S. cities smoke-free. The number of people who might want to smoke at work these days is also dwindling: Smoking rates have reached record lows among American adults, in part because of bans. 

Still, where it's legal, many offices will allow it. "Organizations find it difficult or are hesitant to completely ban it," said Esen. "It's a process that's going to take some time to completely eliminate." The share of smoke-friendly offices seems to have gone down over the last 10 years. When SHRM did a similar, but not comparable, survey in 2004, only 19 percent of offices banned smoking. That number has climbed to almost half, per this year's findings. 

Employers have an adversarial relationship with smokers because they're expensive. One study from 2013 found that smokers cost employers $5,816 a year because of higher health insurance costs, smoke breaks, and higher rates of absenteeism. In addition to offering smoking cessation programs, employers have started imposing surcharges on employees who smoke, a move that seems to be working. The SHRM survey found of the 18 percent of employers who try to discourage the costly behavior with higher health insurance premiums, 45 percent saw a decrease in smoking in the workplace. Although, that kind of incentive to quit only works on certain smokers—likely the more casual ones, says Esen. "It kind of depends on your commitment to smoking," she said. "If you're a real smoker, I don't think it would impact you to have to pay a surcharge for your insurance."

Interestingly, employers are cautiously wading into the issue of e-cigarettes at work. Some workplaces allow it; while others consider it just as insidious as smoking. About half of 127 organizations surveyed by SHRM ban vaping in the office. "It's not really so different from smoking," said Esen. "The verdict is out there. It can be harmful even if you can't smell it, even if you can’t see it. There are still chemicals that can be in the air."

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