Puffers Suffer 

Tobaccotown law firm bans smoke breaks.

Just not within sniffing distance of John V. Cogbill III. And definitely not on his dime.

Cogbill, managing partner of the law firm McGuireWoods’ Richmond office, is taking the next step in snuffing out employee smoke. For a number of years, the firm has been trying to conform to a smoke-free environment. Now Cogbill’s taking it one step further:

Smoking breaks, he says, must cease.

Cogbill issued a memo in early March to McGuireWoods’ 600-plus employees in the James Center. In it, he prohibits smoke breaks and urges employees to lead “healthy and productive lives outside of the office.”

“It really is a health issue,” Cogbill says. “We have a system where we’re supposed to be working for our clients and for each other,” he says. And smoking doesn’t fit. “It’s kind of counter to the way we operate as a professional body,” he says.

There’s also the issue of fairness, the classic interoffice eyebrow-raiser in which nonsmoking employees keep working while their smoking colleagues sneak off for a puff — and perhaps some networking. Hence an episode of “Friends,” in which Jennifer Aniston’s character takes up smoking — briefly — to get in good with her smoking boss.

What was happening at McGuireWoods?

“In the past,” Cogbill wrote in his memo, “we have ‘looked the other way’ as certain members of our staff have left their workstations for ‘smoke breaks,’ either outside the building or in the parking decks. While this has allowed some of our staff to avoid the difficult issues associated with the addictive effects of tobacco, it has created new problems within the office, with our clients and with the other tenants in the James Center buildings.”

The building’s landlord, he says, was receiving complaints about smoking in the underground parking garage. And Central Parking, he says, was considering establishing fines for people who smoke at the entranceways to a pedestrian passageway.

“The auto exhaust is perfectly healthy,” deadpans a Wachovia employee, who also works in the building. The atmosphere against smokers is getting so aggressive, he says, smoking a Winston during a lunch break in the James Center plaza, that he prefers to speak only on the condition of anonymity. “You never know what kind of retribution these people have,” he says.

“They,” he says, are the anti-smoking advocates, who have been driving employers to make tough decisions about how to balance the desires of smokers and nonsmokers. Healthy choices vs. personal decisions. Freedom to puff vs. freedom to profit.

As far as the state is concerned, smoke-free businesses are best.

About 25 percent of Virginians 18 years old and older smoke, according to a “Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey” from the Centers for Disease Control. The state is trying to help employers create smoke-free workplaces.

“We see it as a pretty big priority,” says Eric Walker, tobacco-use control project manager for the Virginia Department of Health. “What we’re trying to show is, personal decisions are fine, but in the workplace, making smoke-free environments affects everyone.”

Since last year, Walker says, his office has been distributing and promoting a publication from the CDC, “Making Your Workplace Smoke-Free: A Decision-Makers’ Guide.” Some Virginia employers, he says, are considering establishing 50- to 75-foot no-smoking boundaries when you walk out the front door. Others have made their entire grounds smoke-free.

Not at the Richmond office of law firm Hunton & Williams.

“There’s really no set break policy with smoking, or coffee, or water, or bathroom or anything,” says John Tuerck, who works in the communications department. “I think the idea is, you get your job done, and if you need a cigarette, you can smoke it.”

There are a plethora of smoking options at Hunton & Williams, which employs about 720 lawyers and staff in the Riverfront Plaza East. There are smoking lounges on the second and 10th floors. And you can smoke in your office if the door is closed and the office is ventilated.

That would seem to be beneficial when reps from Hunton & Williams’ client Philip Morris come by for a visit. They’re used to such freedom.

At the company’s manufacturing plants, there are regularly scheduled breaks, says Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA. “And you’re free to do whatever you want on those breaks, for the most part.” At headquarters, there are designated smoking and nonsmoking areas. “It’s not something that’s an issue,” he says, “so there’s no policy to address it.”

With the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act, the state has established such nonsmoking areas as elevators, schools, and emergency rooms, and required nonsmoking areas at public retail stores and restaurants that seat more than 50 diners.

Otherwise, employers can establish any policy they choose. “Virginia labor laws do not address smoking breaks,” says Patti Bell, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

“It’s not a legal issue,” says Mike McDaniel, a professor of management in the school of business at Virginia Commonwealth University. Smoke breaks hurt productivity, he says. But companies considering a ban on smoking should be prepared. People who are cut off from their nicotine habit, he warns, “tend to get somewhat agitated.”

McGuireWoods is offering its employees a program through its human resource department to help them quit.

Outside the James Center, the guitar duo The Daves play during a lunchtime series. The anonymous smoker in the jacket and tie listens to a chorus from a Duncan Sheik song: “… cause I am barely breathing; And I can’t find the air. …”

The smoker says he understands the movement against smoking — and employers’ freedom to create whatever policy it chooses. But he wonders how things got so aggressive. “We just can’t understand, quite frankly, how it’s become such a pariah group.”

Up the street, Raymond Strain, 54, says he’s seen the change too. “I remember when you could go in the bank and smoke — on the bus and smoke,” he says, taking a break from building scaffolding on 10th Street. He takes drag from a Pall Mall. “Nobody was as fidgety as they are now.”

His employer, Associated Scaffolding, prohibits smoking in company trucks and in its offices. But Strain isn’t bothered. And maybe he’s found the ultimate solution to the smoking squeeze: About 90 percent of his workday is outside. S

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