Last reviewed 24 May 2022

It was made illegal to smoke in the workplace in England in July 2007. Martin Hodgson looks at what the law requires and how it benefits staff health, safety and welfare.

What is smoke-free legislation?

Smoke-free legislation refers to the various regulations that have been adopted throughout the UK to make smoking illegal in workplace premises and in enclosed public places. In England, the key guidance is the Smoke-free (Premises and Enforcement) Regulations 2006. Appropriate signage must be displayed in compliance with the Smoke-free (Signs) Regulations 2012.

The legislation means that smoking is banned in most indoor places other than private homes. This includes almost all workplaces and work vehicles. The provision of indoor staff smoking rooms is also banned under the legislation. Businesses can be fined up to £2500 if they do not stop people smoking or up to £1000 if they fail to display appropriate no smoking signs.

Equivalent legislation exists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Smoke-free legislation does not ban smoking outdoors, either in grounds belonging to a workplace or off-site. However, the choice of whether to allow smoking in grounds attached to a workplace is up to employers.

Local authorities are responsible for enforcing the legislation.

There are exemptions which are set out in the Smoke-free (Exemptions and Vehicles) Regulations 2007. For instance, certain bedrooms in hotels may be designated as allowing smoking and indoors smoking rooms can be designated in care homes and hospices for residents only.

How does banning smoking support health and safety?

The key beneficiaries of smoke-free workplace legislation are non-smokers. In the UK, this represents about 85% of all adults, by far the majority in any workforce.

Non-smokers are safer because banning smoking at work protects them from the harmful effects of passive smoking. This occurs when someone in a closed space lights a cigarette. Most of the smoke they produce does not go into their lungs but disperses into the air where it is inhaled by others. In addition, the smoker also exhales smoke which is also inhaled by others.

This is referred to as “second-hand” smoke.

For most non-smokers the experience of being exposed to second-hand smoke can be very unpleasant. Over time the ill-effects can also be serious.

The NHS recognises that people who breathe in second-hand smoke regularly are more likely to get the same sort of diseases as smokers, including lung cancer and heart disease. In addition, pregnant women exposed to passive smoke are more prone to premature birth and their baby more at risk of low birthweight and cot death.

Smoke-free legislation also has some benefit for smokers as well. There is evidence to suggest that it helps some people to smoke less and others to quit altogether.

How can employers help smokers quit?

Helping staff to quit smoking is not only good for their health, it may also improve overall business productivity. People who stop smoking will generally achieve positive health benefits and evidence suggests that employees who kick the habit take less time off for sickness absence. They may also take less time off on a daily basis for smoking breaks.

For instance, a British Heart Foundation study estimated that smoking costs British businesses about £8.4bn a year and that smokers take on average an extra 0.7 extra sick days each.

Staff who wish to stop smoking should be encouraged and supported by employers. They should be advised to see their GP, to attend an NHS smoking cessation service, or may be referred to an occupational health service, if available.

Employers can do even more by running awareness campaigns and linking smoking policies with staff health and wellbeing programmes. These can also be linked to wider national stop smoking initiatives.

Do employers have to allow smoking breaks?

No. There is nothing to stop staff using their allotted rest breaks to go outside or off-site and smoke if they wish. However, smokers have the same lunch and rest break rights as other staff in law. Some employers may allow extra breaks for smoking but this can be a divisive issue and lead to complaints of inequity.

The issue of smoking breaks should be clearly addressed in the workplace smoking policy.

Do employers have to provide smokers a place outside to smoke?

No. There is nothing in smoke-free legislation which says that employers must allow smoking on their grounds. Some employers erect outside smoking shelters to provide smokers with somewhere to smoke, but this is not a requirement.

If smoking is permitted in the grounds of a workplace it is recommended that it should be limited to certain identified smoking areas. In this case a shelter does at least ensure that smoking is kept to a defined place.

Employers should carefully consider the pros and cons of allowing smoking in their grounds and where this may happen. Smoking in external areas may be a popular option for some staff and visitors. However, it will be seen by others as an unpleasant habit and may introduce the problems of littering and potential fire risks due to discarded cigarette ends.

If provided, the smoking area should be placed so that:

  • smoke does not drift and enter buildings or otherwise introduce second-hand smoke risks for non-smoking staff

  • other staff, visitors and the general public are not inconvenienced

  • fire risks are minimised.

In all cases, smoking in the grounds should not be allowed around entrances and exits and particular care should be taken to site smoking areas away from flammable materials.

Smoking shelters are legal as long as they are not “substantially enclosed” as defined in the regulations. A smoking shelter that is too enclosed will not only break the law but will also present a health and safety hazard to users.

Risk assessments of any outside smoking areas should always consider the potential for discarded smoking materials to start a fire. There should be a supply of receptacles for cigarette ends as distinct from containers for ordinary waste. These should be regularly cleaned and the site kept clear of unsightly or foul smelling smoking litter and waste.

Does the HSE provide advice on smoking at work?

The Health & Safety Executive is not responsible for enforcing smoke-free legislation. However, they state that their inspectors will bring matters of concern to the attention of an employer. The matter will be referred to the appropriate local authority if an employer fails to act on advice given.

Even though smoke-free legislation is in place, the HSE advises that employers should have a specific policy on smoking in the workplace which seeks to protect employees from the effects of second-hand smoke. The HSE state that policies should give priority to the needs of non-smokers who do not wish to breathe tobacco smoke. Employers are also advised to consult their employees and staff representatives on the appropriate smoking policy to suit their particular workplace.

In premises where exemptions are permitted, the HSE reminds employers that health and safety legislation continues to require them to reduce any risks to staff from second-hand smoking to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.

What is the future of smoke-free legislation?

The Government in England states that it has no plans to extend the smoke-free workplace regulations at present. However, all parts of the UK have strategies in place to extend protection from second-hand smoke and reduce the numbers of people who smoke. This is a complex area which includes:

  • strict controls on the sale of tobacco to young people

  • curbs on tobacco advertising

  • increasing tobacco taxation

  • clamping down on tobacco smuggling and illicit sales

  • increasing NHS smoking prevention work

  • expanding smoke-free bans.

For instance, professional bodies such as the Royal Society for Public Health are calling for the establishment by local authorities of more “smoke-free communities” where smoking is banned in spaces such as the immediate vicinity of schools and colleges, in parks, outside pubs, around sports stadiums and leisure facilities, on beaches and in public squares.

In July 2017, the Department of Health and Social Care published Towards a Smokefree Generation — A Tobacco Control Plan for England. The plan looks forward to a “smoke-free generation” — meaning a smoking prevalence of 5% of the population or less. The Government has stated its ambition of adopting this target and going “smoke-free” in England by 2030. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) have published a Roadmap to a Smokefree 2030.

In Wales, a similar 2030 target has been set. In Scotland, the target is 2034.

Conclusions

  • Smoke-free legislation makes it illegal to smoke in workplace premises and in enclosed public places in the UK.

  • The key aim of the legislation is to protect non-smokers from the dangers of “second-hand” smoke.

  • Even though smoke-free legislation is in place, the HSE advises employers to have a specific policy on smoking in the workplace.

The HSE state that policies should give priority to the needs of non-smokers.