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The secret society of the workplace smokers

I have never taken even one puff of a cigarette, which is how I've always known that smoking is cool. However, my faith in that is weakened every time I walk by an office building.
Image: Traders smoke cigarettes outside the New York Stock Exchange
The employee smoking lounge at the New York Stock Exchange is similar to many offices ... outside.Lucas Jackson / Reuters
/ Source: Business Week

I have never taken even one puff of a cigarette, which is how I've always known that smoking is cool. However, my faith in that assumption is weakened every time I walk by an office building. All those people shivering outside in their little smoking leper colony replaces the James Dean-era image of motorcycle freedom with one of Henry Ford-era dirty workers taking their elevenses with bourbon from the factory store.

Not so long ago a cigarette was a way of showing how dedicated you were to your job, like eating lunch at your desk or chugging a Red Bull during an all-nighter. During World War I, cigarettes came with a soldier's field rations. FDR dangled one while war planning with Churchill and Stalin. Picasso took drags while painting. Keith Hernandez lit up right in the dugout while waiting for his at-bat. (That's right: People smoked at work even if their job was exercising.) Now that only an estimated 20.6 percent of Americans smoke — a 3.5 percent decline over the previous decade — the nonsmoking majority has kicked them out of not only hotels and restaurants but even the one place they have to be. And while white-collar workers smoke much less than everyone else — only 14.6 percent in 2007, compared with 28 percent of blue-collar workers — their offices are much more likely to ban smoking (81.9 percent in 2007) than blue-collar workplaces (62.1 percent that same year).

Smoking has been banished and ostracized from nearly every workplace in America, with laws in many cities forcing smokers to stand 20 feet from any building entrance. In some giant companies, they're kicked off the entire campus, which means a sad, slow walk down to the highway. Last year at the Manhattan office of Hudson Yards, a digital imaging and photo retouching company, President Diane Romano started forcing smokers to punch out during their breaks. The policy change, along with a hypnotist she hired, have reduced her smoking employees from 11 to 3. "I'm not paying you to smoke. I'm paying you to work," says Romano, who figured each break took about 15 minutes, including the time to get down to the sidewalk from the company's 11th-floor office in the elevator. "If it's one or two cigarettes a day, O.K., but when people are going out five times a day, they're losing at least an hour. That's three full workdays every month. It's not fair for those who don't smoke."

All the evidence led me to the conclusion that the coolness of smoking during work was over. I was way wrong. What I hadn't understood was that smokers are precisely the type of people who thrive on being ostracized and banished. These aren't the ex-football players and class presidents who fought for your approval. These are the brooding loners, the ones who — according to the teen smoking analysis found in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" — start smoking not because they want to look cool but because it goes along with all their other self-destructive, class-cutting, early-sex, authority-flouting coolness. These are people who willingly put fire in their mouths. So that little area in front of the building that looks so lame from afar is actually the high school bathroom of the Information Age. Around the country all the cool engineers, accountants, and salespeople skip out of work, duck their boss, gather outside the building, gossip, and — though I could not confirm this — make fun of me.

I also discovered smoking was still cool because none of the people whom I talked to were willing to give me both their name and the company they work for on the record. That only happens when you write about the CIA, extramarital affairs, or AIG. In their anonymity, numerous smokers told me that, while the nonsmokers look down on them as slackers, their habits have actually helped advance their careers. A salesman for online ads says he has a special bond with clients who smoke, and Jennifer, who worked at an accounting consulting firm in Orange County, Calif., claims that — just like in episodes of "Friends" and "How I Met Your Mother" — she never did better at work than when she had a boss who smoked. "That's how I got to know her well, outside during breaks. I'd score some brownie points and she put me in charge of a job in my first year," she said.

While Jennifer, who has held several jobs, never lets anyone know that she smokes during the interview process — "You want to make a good impression," she explains — she still sniffs out her smoking co-workers on her first day. "You say, 'Oh my God, I need a cigarette' after something stressful, and they say, 'Oh, so-and-so smokes.' So you ask so-and-so if they want to smoke. It's like an excuse to meet someone new. You make a lot more friends like that." Friends, I'm guessing, who are a lot more fun than when I try to meet people at a new job by saying, "Man, that was stressful. Almost like when I was deciding whether to play Luis Valbuena or Mike Aviles as backup shortstop in my fantasy team."

Wanting to see how these nicotine hipster societies make do with their decidedly un-Parisian café surroundings, I stood outside a building that houses a large online marketing company in Los Angeles employing about 150 people — I have already said too much — where I met 3 of the office's 10 smokers who had gathered a short distance from the building's entrance. They used to smoke in a little outdoor hallway that shielded them from their supervisor's exits and entrances, until workers at some other company with a door near their hiding place complained about the smoke. They've also been banished by the office management from the sides and back of the building, sequestered in this tiny area with a few metal tables and benches.

Ben Rich, a salesman, takes a drag and complains about how his co-workers view his habit. "You're the jerk who's smoking, taking breaks," he says. "If you smoke, they make assumptions about your lifestyle." When I ask him what kinds of assumptions, he looks down: "That I'm never home. That I'm overly social." I had never before considered the emotional struggles of the cool.

Rich was summoned to this particular smoke break by an instant message from software engineer Sooraj Akkammadam, who says his co-workers make a big deal over the three to five trips a day he takes outside. "One guy acts like it's poison gas when we come back," Akkammadam says. And while some co-workers resent them for taking breaks, most of them — argues fellow smoker and engineer Yevegni Tovbin — take longer trips to buy Frappuccinos. Plus, it's difficult for their boss to complain, since he has installed both an arcade machine and a Ping-Pong table in the office. Besides, Akkammadam thinks that smoking breaks allow him to meet people who aren't on his team, that they encourage cross-departmental collaboration that wouldn't otherwise occur, and give him time to brainstorm work ideas. Smoking, the way Akkammadam sees it, is a lot like a really cheap off-site meeting.

After the three finish their cigarettes and are about to head back up, another engineer with a habit, Paul Lee, walks outside. He's not surprised to see his smoking buddies. "I've worked at lots of places in a lot of cities and there is some kind of timing where people go out at a very certain time," Lee says. Raised to be a gentleman in Alabama, Lee refuses to light up around a female nonsmoking co-worker and waits until she walks away before smoking. When Lee heads down to the metal tables, Akkammadam, who was about to go back into the building, pulls out his pack, taps another cigarette, and follows him. "I can't leave this guy hanging," he explains. Then he walked away and left me hanging.

Even at The Onion newspaper, where the job is to rebel against authority, the staffers have to wait for the slow, old elevator to take them 10 floors down to Broadway in New York's SoHo. "It is a little bit humiliating. It makes you realize that you're not some urban sophisticate smoking. You're more like a dumb animal outside the building smoking," says Onion Senior Editor Todd Hanson.

Still, the current situation seems better than when he worked for the humor paper in its old headquarters in Madison, Wis., where Hanson put his desk inside a stairwell so he could smoke — until the fire department kicked his desk out. So he worked in the stairwell deskless, writing longhand. All these obstacles have only deepened his dedication to smoking breaks and brought him closer to his fellow addicts. "Among the few holdouts who haven't died of lung cancer yet, the camaraderie is stronger," he says. That's because what doesn't kill them only serves to make them cooler.

Have we lost too much and gained too little by kicking the smokers out onto the curb? At each office, out there far from where we can hear them, they've formed a little supergroup of cool, brave, overly social workers who help one another climb the corporate ladder. If you doubt this, consider that a smoker who was just a first-term senator a few years ago is now the President of the United States. If John Edwards had been a smoker, he might have met far more useful people than Reille Hunter.