Secondhand smoke legal action moves another step closer

Monday 19 April 2004

ASH news release:  Embargo: 00:01hrs Monday 19th April 2004


Secondhand Smoke at Work

Legal Action Moves Another Step Closer

Legal actions for compensation over secondhand smoke in the workplace came another step closer today, after the hospitality trade was accused of a “stubborn failure to act” over previous warnings of potential liability over health damage caused to employees.


Health campaigning charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the UK’s largest personal injury and trade union law firm Thompsons have published a new leaflet giving advice to employees whose health may have been affected by breathing in other people’s smoke at work (the leaflet can be downloaded from Thompsons are also offering a freephone helpline for employees – 0800 587 1270. The leaflet will be distributed through trade unions and tobacco control networks across the country.


Although many offices and other workplaces are now smoke free, ASH estimates that at least three million employees are still routinely exposed to secondhand smoke at work. Many of these employees work in the hospitality industries, including hotels, pubs and restaurants.

In January this year, ASH and Thompsons sent a registered letter to all the UK’s leading hospitality trade employers, warning them that the “date of guilty knowledge” under the Health and Safety at Work Act is now past, and that employers should know the risks of exposing their staff to secondhand smoke. Employers who continue to permit smoking in the workplace are therefore likely to be held liable by the courts for any health damage caused.


Intake of secondhand smoke by bar staff in the course of their work can be two or three times higher than that arising from living with a partner who smokes. Living with a smoking partner is known to increase the risk of lung cancer by 20-30% and of heart disease by 30% [1]. Secondhand smoke is also a major trigger of asthma attacks – more than five million people in the UK suffer from asthma. The hospitality trade has generally failed to respond to the previous ASH/Thompsons warning: the industry’s “Charter Group” is lobbying the Government in favour of a “voluntary” approach to smoking in hospitality venues.


Deborah Arnott, Director of ASH, commented:

“Every employer in Britain should know by now that secondhand smoke is dangerous to the health of their employees. There is no moral excuse – and we believe no legal defence – for continuing to expose employees to such an unnecessary health and safety risk. The Government should follow the Irish example and legislate. But if it doesn’t, and if the hospitality trade and other employers continue their stubborn failure to act over the clear warnings they have now received, then the issue will be decided in the courts.”


John Hall, solicitor at Thompsons, commented:

“Employers have no more right to allow smoke in the workplace than they do to allow asbestos or coal dust. They need to stop smoking in the workplace, or they will face legal action from those who are made ill as a result. We intend to give employees whose health has been damaged by secondhand smoke at work the information and support they need to bring cases for compensation. And we intend to use court actions to oblige irresponsible employers to face their legal and moral responsibilities for the health and safety of their employees.”

– ENDS –

CONTACT:               Ian Willmore (ASH)            020 7739 5902 (w) 07887 641344 (m)

                                      John Hall (Thompsons)    020 7290 0059 (w) 07970 251 262 (mobile)


– ISDN line available –




[1] Secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde, arsenic, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide. The US Environmental Protection Agency has classified environmental tobacco smoke as a known human (class A) carcinogen, and the TUC recently wrote to the European Commission complaining that the continuing exposure of UK employees to secondhand smoke was in breach of the EU’s Carcinogens Directive. The immediate effects of inhaling secondhand smoke include eye irritation, headache, cough, sore throat and nausea. Exposure for just 30 minutes to secondhand smoke has been shown to reduce coronary blood flow. The British Medical Association has estimated that secondhand smoke causes at least 1,000 premature deaths in the UK each year.