The birth of the cigarette break came hand in hand with the emergence of the concept of passive smoking and subsequently grew when its associated dangers were publicised.  

It is based on the principle that one should minimise the levels at which ones action interferes with another person if the effects of such actions are seen to be harmful.

It follows on that it is up to the person doing the activity in question to make sure that their actions do not have a harmful effect on those around them rather than those harmed by it.   The most common ways of doing this is by refraining from doing the activity at all, or by doing it somewhere else where its effects are reduced, in this case by taking a cigarette break.

The cigarette break seems reasonable when one understands smoking as a hedonistic and self-indulgent activity, like eating chocolate.   However, things are not as simple when one understands smoking as a physical addiction, where the user has no control over their desire and is dependent on the nicotine to function at their best.   Their body needs the nicotine, regardless of the social implications or the harm it may cause to others around them.   In this case the cigarette break becomes an activity which has deeper implications into the ethics and morals of a society.

In order to fully come to terms with the cigarette break one has to see smoking as both a pleasure seeking indulgence and a desperately needed source of nicotine.


The simplest way to understand the cigarette break is through its parallels to waiting time.   It is a time where when one is in limbo between prescribed activities.   In the doctors waiting room, in a queue, waiting for a friend or even for your dinner to cook, you are in a space in between activities, when ones life is focused   on what is to come and the present is non-existent.  

However, waiting differs drastically from cigarette breaks in that the waiting achieves its reason for being when the dinner cooks or when the friend arrives.  

Many forms of waiting have the added difference of considerable duration when compared to the five minutes of a cigarette break, travel time being the most characteristic.   This increased duration allows such time to be infiltrated by leisure or work in ways which other non-activities like the cigarette break don't.  

However above and beyond differences regarding duration, the cigarette break is characteristic in that it brings into question the sense of ownership over one's time.   Unlike any other time the cigarette break is a "break" from something.   Nowadays, where one spends most of his awake hours working for someone else, the cigarette break has become a way to steal back the time you have sold, about 10 hours per month.   This as shown next is one of the main opportunities the cigarette break provides.


An opportunity

Although the cigarette break does not seem to be much of a compromise from the view of smokers, it was readily accepted as they saw this as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.  

Smokers can use their addiction as an excuse to leave almost any situation at any time. What makes the cigarette break such a comfortable excuse is the fact that people accept that smokers need theire nicotine hit as much as people with diabetes need their insulin.  

All this allowed the cigarette break to evolve to become an important part of our culture.   It has become a social activity, where rumours are spread, deals are agreed on and friends are made.  

A key aspect of the cigarette break which allows it to become a such an opportunity is the fact that smoking is an activity which requires very little effort by the users, allowing them to perform a number of other tasks while they take in their nicotine.   Needless to say that different people use their cigarette break in different ways.  

During these explorations we concentrate on cigarette breaks in the heart of the financial district in London, where the peculiarities of cigarette breaks are at their most extreme, the Broadgate Cente.

The following diagram shows a number of different ways which the cigarette break is used by different people in this particular area.


The Cigarette Break

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A cigarette break lasts on average 5 mins and 22 secs.   It is a peculiar activity that has developed in the grey area between work and leisure.   Its ambiguous nature makes it ideal context to play with expectations, values and social relationships.

click on diagram to enlarge in new window


It is easy to see how the cigarette break has been the cause of envy of non smokers who rarely have the opportunity to interact with others beyond their prescribed time. The advantages of the cigarette break are such that many non-smokers take up the habit to be able to make use of its opportunities and many smokers would not to give up so as not to forfeit their break.

This imbalance opens the opportunity for the development of other alternatives to smoking which would require similar treatment.   Activities which are purposefully unpleasant to those in the vicinity, requiring the user to go somewhere else; Activities which the user can be said to be addicted to or whose functioning depends on such products.



The cigarette break is an acceptable way for both smoker and non-smoke to co-exist without tension.   We have seen that the reason it is accepted by all parties is that the cigarette breaks provides one with opportunities beyond smoking.   However these opportunities are becoming a new source of tension as non smokers do not benefit from them.

It is easy to see how having to remove oneself from the vicinity of those disturbed by ones activities may be seen as an unnecessarily drastic and consequential way to deal with the situation.

Is there other ways in which smokers can manifest their politeness and consideration fo others?

There are many other activities than have required an etiquette to deem them socially acceptable, and many that remain causes of tension.   Sneezing and coughing are to be done with the mouth covered up so as not to spread germs, however, the etiquette of passing wind remains ambiguous.



Breaks play a mojor role in the efficiency of the workplace.   Many organisations enforce compulsory one hour lunch breaks away from the employees desk as a means to increase productivity.   It is also well known that the human brain works in cycles where it enters a state of less efficiency after 45 minutes, at which a five minute break revitalizes it to its maximum   efficiency.

This knowledge is manifested in the way organisations are designed.   The provision of cafés, kitchens and many times a break room supplied with magazines and coffee machine.

Should employers encourage cigarette breaks?

Either from pressure from organizations to increase productivity or from the labour forces own subconscious workings, breaks have evolved in a number of different ways.   Coffee or tea breaks, toilet breaks, shop breaks are the more common.

The cigarette break is different from these breaks in that they require specific spatial characteristics and segregation beyond that of say a tea break.


The political statement of hedonism

It could be said that smoking in itself is an extremely strong political statement.   A smoker one who enjoys and indulges themselves with the pleasures of this world.   This however seems to contradict the way many smokers live their lives.



One of the most characteristic aspects of the cigarette break is the ambiguity of who owns the time.   This is particularly the case when the break is taken during work hours.

We've seen that a cigarette break is not an activity which takes up much effort and leaves space for people to do things other than smoking.   To what extent can employers, as those paying for the time, prescribe what smokers should use their cigarette break for?   This would be a huge advantage for employers if they take advantage of the opportunities the cigarette break provides to maximise the efficiency of their smoking workforce.

As discussed before, the cigarette break provides small units of time which are ideal for the workforce to socialise whilst in the frameset of work.   This can be used as a major tool for team building, improving work relationships, communication between employees and developing an efficient   positive workforce.