At This Tobacco Company, Smoking at Your Desk Is Finally Off-Limits

R.J. Reynolds will no longer let employees light up in common areas of the office.

(Illustration: CSA/Getty Images)

Oct 23, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Seven seasons into the hit series Mad Men, it’s still surreal to watch Don Draper lighting a cigarette at the office. Doing so is unthinkable in most modern workplaces, but not on the premises of North Carolina–based tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. At least until Jan. 1, when the company will finally change its ways.

On Wednesday the maker of Camel, Winston and Salem, Pall Mall, Doral, and Kool brand cigarettes announced that in 2015 employees won’t be allowed to smoke traditional cancer sticks, cigars, or pipes in common areas of the workplace.

According to the company’s estimates, about 18 percent of its 5,200 employees are smokers. R.J. Reynolds already prohibits them from consuming traditional tobacco products on the factory floor and in the fitness center (it might be tough to puff away while putting in a few miles on a treadmill). After the new year, those folks will no longer be able to smoke at their desks, in hallways and elevators, or while grabbing a cup of coffee in the break room.

“We believe it’s the right thing to do and the right time to do it, because updating our tobacco use policies will better accommodate both nonsmokers and smokers who work in and visit our facilities,” spokesperson David Howard told Newsweek.

That sounds a little like some employees and visitors might’ve complained about the health risks of being exposed to secondhand smoke. But Howard would only say that nowadays employees expect a smoke-free environment and that the company believes “that people should rely on conclusions of the surgeon general and other health authorities.”

The legal system has certainly affected R.J. Reynolds this year. In July the company, which is the nation’s second-largest tobacco product producer after Phillip Morris, was slapped with $23.6 billion in punitive damages in a Florida lawsuit. The suit was filed by the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.

That said, smokers aren’t going to be banished to the outside of R.J. Reynolds’ offices. The company plans to build indoor smoking lounges where employees can light up in comfort. In what may be a sign of where it sees its future, e-cigarettes, which contain a liquid combination of water, propylene glycol, and nicotine and emit a vapor when heated, will still be allowed in common areas.

Although the devices have been marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, the World Health Organization has raised concerns about e-cigarette safety and whether secondhand smoke from them is harmful. E-cigs have already been banned in public places such as bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago, so don’t expect other employers to follow suit on that policy anytime soon.