Vaping in The Workplace

Nov 02, 2017

It would be best to think that some people have never smoked at work; chefs, surgeons and petrol pump attendants come to mind, but there was a time when many of us did. In Britain, before July 2007, it was legal to smoke at your place of work if your employer allowed it. By then many didn’t but you don’t have to go back many more years before you find active smokers in most offices, factory floors and workshops.

In offices, those of us who smoked could sit puffing away all day, gradually reducing the air quality until you couldn’t see the other side of the room. Screens slowly grew fuzzy with a slightly yellow tint as a fine layer of dust and nicotine stuck to them. Keyboards became clogged with ash and the occasional butt until the spacebar no longer worked very well. We got the odd remark from bitter non-smokers whose long simmering (and suffering) resentment was near snapping point but they didn’t really register.

Eventually we learnt better and, even later, acted on this knowledge. The ban on smoking in the workplace came in and the air cleared. Our colleagues hated us a little less, our screens were clean and the wastepaper bins were no longer a fire hazard. There was also a totally unexpected benefit in improved internal communication. As a random cross section of the company gathered outside in the designated smoking area, they chatted about what they were doing. Perhaps for the first time CEOs spoke freely to admins, engineers to marketing execs and accountants to anyone who would listen - a casual comment maybe saving millions of pounds or sparking new ideas and products or better ways of working together.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, it seems incredible that the ban didn’t happen sooner. It was long overdue and undoubtedly a good thing, but then again maybe we lost something as well.

Picture a small group of archetypal British boffins, backroom boys, the original nerds, all in tweed jackets and with ties Windsor knotted firmly around starched shirt collars. These were the sort of chaps who knew the difference between Imperial A/F and Whitworth screw threads. Can you really see them without at least one having a briar pipe clamped firmly between his teeth, removing it only to point at some detail in a blueprint? From before the Flying Scotsman to Concorde, tobacco has been a part of British engineering.

Now jump ten years and an ocean away to fifties New York, specifically Madison Avenue. The American economy is booming and consumer society is being invented in front of our eyes. Don Draper and Roger Sterling sit speaking about the Lucky Strike account, their customer’s product smouldering in the fingers. Yes, these Mad Men are fictional characters but their world was real enough and unimaginable without Big Tobacco within and behind it.

Stay in New York but fast forward to the early eighties. The mergers and acquisitions departments of Wall Street are ascendant. Multi-million dollar business empires are sliced and diced by the self-proclaimed masters of the universe, entire companies used as no more than bargaining chips. Men in crumpled white shirts, ties now tugged loose, conduct late night negotiations in smoke filled rooms, a dense haze settled in layers just above their heads.

Would any of these scenes play out in our imaginations the same way without smoking? The principles would seem incomplete without their pipes or cigarettes. They are of their time and we shouldn’t judge them in any other way.

To some of us a boardroom table still looks incomplete without a row of big marble ashtrays down the centre. Can you imagine the CEO of a Fortune 500 company sat at the head of that table sucking on a darned great mod, filling the room with billowing clouds of vapour? Doesn’t really work does it? Now picture that same person slipping AYR from their jacket pocket. Maybe there is a way of recapturing some of what we lost.

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