Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The solidarity of street smokers

Huddle of street smokers

By Tom de Castella

Huddles of street smokers outside office doorways could be extinguished under new public health plans. But it could also be the end to the comradeship of pavement puffers.

Christopher Skorus has bad dreams about pavements covered in cigarettes. The Polish street cleaner who patrols the streets of the City of London spends his days clearing up the discarded butts of workers and pub-goers.

"Offices are a problem," he says, pausing to sweep up a small mountain of used cigarettes outside the front door of a five-storey office block. "I clean the street and half-an-hour later it's full of cigarettes."

Cigarette butts
The stuff of nightmares... for street cleaners at least

In his native Poland the police are watching - you get a £10 fine for dropping one on the street. Perhaps the same should happen here, he suggests. "People have no respect, it's a mentality. In the morning the street is white with cigarettes."

Workers puffing away nearby argue that since the smoking ban in England was introduced in July 2007, they have little choice but to huddle conspiratorially in doorways. The ban meant the end of office smoking rooms and the death of ash trays in the pub, forcing workers and drinkers on to the pavement to get their tobacco fix.

Now to their horror the government looks to be going further still.

Announcing a review of smoking legislation in England, Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the public ban could be extended to places such as the entrances of buildings to prevent the risk of second-hand smoke.

The effect would be to disperse those huddles of smokers who have become a common sight in recent years.

Smoking in indoor workplaces and public places banned January 1, 2008
Ban created buffer zone outside buildings
Smoking forbidden within 15 feet of entrances, windows that open, and ventilation intakes
not an offence for smoke to blow into the 15 feet area - this is a buffer zone to prevent smoke entering the building
Businesses who breach the rules three times can be fined $2500 or more

Britain would not be the first to try to control clouds of smoke near entrances to buildings. The US state of Illinois bans smokers from standing within 15ft of the entrance to a public building while in Moscow the limit is 20ft.

"Define entrance? It's ridiculous," says Ollie Barrett, an insurance broker outside his office, grinding a cigarette under the sole of his shoe.

His colleague and fellow smoker Richard Hancock puts it more vehemently.

"Whether it's outside the office or the pub or restaurant we're all lepers and persona non grata now. Where I live you have all the undesirables standing outside a Wetherspoons pub, smoking and drinking. It's not something you want your kids to have to walk past. They'd be better off inside but that's the smoking ban for you."

But just a few feet away, another smoker is remarkably receptive - believing the ban could work where his willpower has failed.

"It's a good idea," says Tony Dempsey, who runs a building services company. "It's not pleasant to see people outside entrance smoking. They should have a total ban - it might help me give up!"

Smoking graph

Eric Rams, an employee smoking outside his bank branch on Oxford Street, was initially outraged.

"Next they'll stop us breathing!" before conceding that it was "disgusting" for non-smokers to have to walk through a haze of smoke to get into a building.

But he feared the practical impact of the crackdown would be be detrimental to staff relations.

"Where will we go to? We'll have to walk further down the street and there are more doorways. And we only get five minutes for a cigarette so it may not be popular with the bosses upstairs."

Act of naughtiness

Outside the Bank of England, a gaggle of colleagues stand, like bedraggled sentries, chatting and exhaling plumes of tobacco smoke. But none of them seem much concerned by the impending ban - they will just wander further away.

Street smoker
Smoking may become a more solitary pursuit

Although, it does help when you are working in a building as wide as a football pitch.

But if breaking up clusters of doorway smokers has a public health pay off, it could also spell the end of a particular camaraderie that has developed in the wake of the smoking backlash.

Judi James, a behavioural and workplace expert, believes there is more at stake for smokers than just a nicotine top up.

"Smokers' workplace bonding has always given them a very unfair advantage," she says.

"There's something about the act of rebellion, it breaks down the hierarchy between people who wouldn't normally speak to each other. It's a shared act of naughtiness and when people have got a fag on, the normal rules of communication don't apply."

The default body language of smokers is gossipy and conspiratorial - even if they're not gossiping she says - and this can create suspicion amongst non-smokers.

So would a mass dispersal bring a swift end to this ad hoc bonding? It could go one of two ways.

Ms James thinks if it leads to smokers taking a walk then this networking opportunity will be lost as humans don't move in groups, especially across different social groups.

But if it forces smokers to gather in designated areas it could actually ramp up the bonding.

Rebel children

"If they congregate together it will make the relationship more bonded because now they're going to feel alienated and rejected. It's the rebel child syndrome."

The only workplace space with a similar dynamic is the ladies' toilet, Ms James says.

While smoking bans have made offices a cleaner place to work, they've also helped develop the bravado of the hardy smoker standing outside the office in shirtsleeves, she says.

"The sensible solution would be to have separate indoor smokers rooms," says Simon Clark, of smokers' rights group Forest. "Otherwise you are going to loiter close to your building." Smokers will learn to "move en masse further away from the building".

The sight of a huddle of workers blocking a doorway as they suck on a nicotine stick and struggle to keep warm is one that many employers, at least, will be pleased to see the back of.

To Jeremy Baker, professor at the ESCP Europe Business School, it is "a very unsightly and low status start to how an organisation is viewed.

"Companies have spent their money making the entrance hall the nicest place in the building but the whole effect is disfigured by these people standing outside trying to get cancer as quickly as possible - it's ugly."

It's got to the stage where smoking at work is becoming as socially unacceptable as office drunkenness he believes.

"It looks poor - the staff are not focusing on the work they've got to do. It's like arriving and finding people lolling around half drunk. Companies need to look attractive and alert but smoking is stupid and spoils the image you're trying to project."

Below is a selection of your comments.

So stopping people from smoking near the workplace entrance will get them to focus on their work? No, all that will be focused on is the need for a cigarette.
A Jones, UK

I walk to work each day through the West End and the City of London, and I inhale about as much smoke passively as I'd get from smoking two cigarettes. So I agree that there should be designated smoking areas with a ban in all other public spaces.
Vicky Harriss, London

Think about the female staff working in pubs and clubs who will now have to find solace further away from the entrance - what about their safety? The government need to look at a wider picture now. How long will it be before the headline YOUNG FEMALE ATTACKED WHILST HAVING A CIGARETTE will appear?
M Dickinson, Pontefract

In England you already get fined for dropping a butt on the floor - it's £50. Maybe supplying bins for the ends would be a more intelligent idea. I work in a bar and I can tell you the smokers standing outside in our smoking area are rarely causing the problems.
Emma, Birmingham

Professor Baker obviously needs to do a bit more learning himself. To compare smoking to drunkenness is just ridiculous. A quick nicotine fix helps me focus on my work and the break allows me to evaluate things as well!
Robbie G, London

Why on Earth should smokers get fag breaks anyway? Non-smokers don't get a five-minute break every hour yet are often put under pressure when the smokers disappear for their hourly skive. It is pretty pathetic that people cannot last the 4 hours or so between the start/end of work and lunch breaks without having a cigarette.
David Macbeth, Manchester

First the non-smokers campaigned to have no smoking workplaces and restaurants. Now are they going to campaign to stop smokers from speaking to each other while they have a smoke? Spare me please! There is a reasonable way to accommodate smokers and non-smokers. My workplace has designated outside smoking areas and has attached ashtrays to the buildings away from entrances.
M. Atkinson, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada

The college where I used to work has always had a no smoking policy, with an outside courtyard acting as a smoking area. A suggestion was made to make the whole campus no smoking until it was pointed out that if students had to go off-site for a quick puff between classes, it would increase the likelihood of them not returning on time, if at all.
Megan, Cheshire

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