The cost of smoking breaks at work… compared with what?

According to a report in today’s Guardian produced by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) for the British Heart Foundation, smoking breaks at work “cost British businesses £8.4bn a year”, or £1815 per smoking employee. My first question on reading that headline is “compared with what?” Is this compared with the typical non-smoking employee, or compared with some super-motivated work machine who never takes a moment’s break from their tasks during the working day?

Unfortunately the report itself doesn’t seem to be on general release, so I’ve had a guess as to how they calculated the figures:

According to the report, smokers take an average of 3.9 smoking breaks per day, each lasting 9.8 minutes. This totals around 38 minutes a day, or 3.2 hours a week. Over a year of, let’s say, 45 working weeks, this totals 143 hours spent smoking. In 2013, median gross hourly earnings of full time employees were £13.03 per hour, which gives a figure of £1863, pretty close to the £1815 cited in the report. The implication is that eliminating smoking would give the economy a boost of £1815 per smoker, or £8.4bn overall.

(Yes I know I used median and not mean earnings, but smoking tends to be negatively correlated with income and incomes are very highly right-skewed, so multiplying by the median is probably a better approximation of the cost we’re interested in).

But what would those employees be doing if they weren’t smoking? If they would be diligently working at their stations then, yes, an additional £1800 or so of output per smoker could be realised to the economy. But what if they simply substituted smoking for other activities such as making a cup of tea, or chatting round the water cooler? Or as I like to think of it, behaving like any normal human being? If this is the case then eliminating smoking would yield a zero gain in productivity and the £8.4bn claim is utterly flawed.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. To answer this we need to know: do smokers take more breaks than non-smokers, and if so, what is the extra time they take? That would give a reasonable estimate of the potential productivity gain from reducing the prevalence of smoking.

However, it may not make such good headlines.

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