Introducing Organizational Behavior and Management

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Human Relations The regulation of smoking at work
Joanna Brewis and Christopher Grey Human Relations 2008; 61; 965 DOI: 10.1177/0018726708093904 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Human Relations DOI: 10.1177/0018726708093904 Volume 61(7): 965–987 Copyright © 2008 The Tavistock Institute ® SAGE Publications Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore

The regulation of smoking at work
Joanna Brewis and Christopher Grey


Smoking was for most of the 20th century a normal part of everyday life in western society, including work organizations. Within a very short space of time it has become much less acceptable in the workplace and, in many countries, banned altogether. Why has this happened? This article seeks to answer this question. Although the main legislative basis of these bans is the health and safety of employees, we argue that the issues at stake are in fact more complex. Smoking, we contend, should be understood as a practice with diverse cultural meanings, and its regulation located within the context of a longstanding and dynamic moral discourse, of which scientific and medical discourse is only one aspect. In so doing we seek to open up a significant gap in the social scientific and organization studies literature for future analysis.


moral discourse regulation scientific discourse smoking workplace

Imagine a time traveller from just about any time in the first three-quarters of the 20th century entering just about any workplace in the ‘developed’ world today. He or she might be struck by many changes, but one especially noticeable development would be that smoking has all but disappeared. Whereas even 30 years ago smoking was commonplace in Western organizations it has gradually become restricted or banned, either as a result of 965

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Human Relations 61(7)

organizational policies or, increasingly, legislative interventions. In England and Wales, the Health Improvement and Protection Act (2006) outlawed smoking in all enclosed public spaces as of 1 July 2007. This legislation, like that in many other countries, is premised in the main on arguments about the harmful physical effects of passive smoking upon co-workers. In this sense, the workplace is the central terrain within which social practices around smoking are changing. Yet this transformation has received no attention at all from organizational analysts, and very little from social scientists in general. The purpose of this article is to analyse why smoking at work (and attitudes towards it) has undergone such a radical shift. This is an important issue for organizational analysis. Even at a mundane level there are implications of smoking bans at work in human resource management terms – such as the connections that might be formed in the ‘smokers’ huddle’, or the resentment that smoking breaks outside the office could generate amongst non-smokers. However, whilst we touch upon such issues as these, our primary concern is with the much larger question of how to make sense of this significant change in social rules. We will suggest that what is at stake is much broader than a workplace health and safety issue – despite this being the primary justification for the...
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