Most Americans are used to no-smoking policies in workplaces. If smoking is prohibited inside a building, smokers usually head outside to a designated area to light up. But can you smoke just anywhere outside an office building or are you restricted to specific federally regulated outdoor areas? The answer depends on several factors, including the type of building as well as the city and state where it's located. The regulation of outdoor designated smoking areas near commercial buildings varies from state to state. Always check state and local outdoor smoking ordinances to determine what laws apply to your workplace.
Baseline Federal Regulations
The federal government has no specific regulations for the creation of outdoor smoking areas. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is tasked with making sure all American workers have a safe and hazard-free workplace, and the agency does provide some guidance. OSHA's baseline standards for indoor air quality are detailed in its General Duty Clause. The clause requires employers to furnish a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
But neither OSHA nor any other federal agency has specifically regulated exactly where employees and others can smoke in public outdoor spaces. Those regulations are generally left to individual municipalities and states. The only exception is the regulation of smoking in or near federal office buildings. Here the federal government steps in. Smoking is prohibited in courtyards and within 25 feet of doorways and air intake ducts around buildings under the jurisdiction, custody or control of the federal government. Federal agency building managers are responsible for furnishing and installing suitable, uniform signs in the building and in and around entrance doorways and air intake ducts that read: No Smoking; No Smoking Except in Designated Areas; No Smoking Within 25 Feet of Doorway; or No Smoking Within 25 Feet of Air Duct, as appropriate.
City and State Outdoor Smoking Regulations
Federal regulation of outdoor smoking areas stops there. Federal agencies who are tenants in privately owned buildings must comply with state and local regulations. The rules for designated nonsmoking areas adjacent to public buildings varies by state and sometimes even by city. According to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, more than 1,136 communities and numerous states have enacted designated outdoor smoking regulations.
While the exact wording may vary by municipality, most private commercial building regulations reflect some version of the federal building requirement. Commercial buildings usually establish reasonable distance regulations and prevent smoking within 15 to 25 feet of doorways, operable windows and intake vents of smoke-free buildings. The aim of this type of restriction is to prevent a health hazard to nonsmokers by limiting the amount of second-hand smoke drifting back into the building. It also protects employees, customers, clients and visitors who enter the building from having to pass through clouds of second-hand smoke.
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- OSHA: Indoor Air Quality in Commercial and Institutional Buildings
- Cornell Legal Information Institute: Regulation for Smoking outside federal buildings
- Cornell Legal Information Institute: Regulation for outdoor smoking areas of federal buildings
- CityLab: Outdoor Smoking Bans: Impossible to Enforce, or Inevitable?
- American Non-Smokers Rights Foundation: Smokefree Outdoor Air
Frances Katz is an attorney who writes about legal issues in business for a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Week, Paste, The Independent and The New York Times. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.