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My smoking co-worker stinks. How do I get him to stop touching me?

The question

A colleague of mine is a heavy smoker. If he shakes my hand or touches my shoulder I smell like an ashtray for the rest of the day. I don't usually have any trouble expressing how I feel, but I like him otherwise and don't want to offend him. He's not going to quit smoking so how do I tell him not to touch me any more?

The answer

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It's funny, you don't hear about "heavy smokers" much these days.

At least I don't. The people I know who smoke do it mostly socially – at parties, out on the porch, huddled in groups, loudly proclaiming how unusual and irregular it is for them to smoke, wondering who's got a pack, constantly glancing through the window to see if their kids inside the house are going to catch them.

Once, we were afraid of getting caught by our parents when we smoked. Now, we're afraid of getting caught by our kids. Is that irony?

My youngest, Adam, particularly, was a real tobacco Gestapo for a while there. Whenever we had people over, at some point he'd come flying out onto the porch, like Michael Palin from Monty Python's old "Spanish Inquisition" sketch: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

If he spotted a cigarette smouldering in the vicinity of his father he'd become like Lear on the heath: "Why? Why? I've got a dad who's gonna die!"

So eventually I quit – basically.

But the type of smoker you describe – who fires one up with morning coffee and keeps 'em coming all day and into the night – is rare these days, at least in my world. I know maybe two guys like that, The Last of the Smoke-hicans.

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But even they are not so smoke-enshrouded that their touch bequeaths acrid, ashtray-type odours upon those around them "for the rest of the day." That's just way too smoky! In fact, I find it a bit of a credulity/nose-stretcher, but anyway. …

You say you don't want to offend this guy. Just say something along the lines of: "Hey, I'm sorry, it's a weird phobia but I don't like to be touched." If he sticks out his hand for a shake, you could tell him you have a cold. Sure, he might be a little miffed for a while, but he'll get over it.

You have the right not to have off-putting odours transferred to your person from someone at work. I mean, say you're getting … intimate with someone you truly care about and are attracted to. There's some Barry White on the stereo, merlot in the glass, you've been witty and charming all night. It looks like you're about to hop aboard The Consummation Train, when suddenly he or she catches a whiff of your coif, and pulls back in disgust. The moment is lost and you have to go home to your lonely bed, all because some dude patted you on the head at work that day? That hardly seems fair.

But ultimately, don't you want to step back a bit and take a look at the bigger picture? You say you "like this guy otherwise." Doesn't part of you just want to blurt out the unfiltered truth?

Something like: "Listen, this is a tough thing to say, and pardon my bluntness, but honestly, you are so suffused in smokiness it makes me smell when you touch me."

Maybe it'll help him, if not quit, then possibly cut down a bit. There's a fair body of evidence that the problems of smoking increase exponentially for the "heavy smoker." Cancer, emphysema, mental-health problems, even suicide – the chance of being subject to any of these go through the roof for heavy smokers.

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I'm not saying you should get all preachy/superior. Approach the whole subject with caution and compassion. Remember: People who smoke have been preached at and quoted statistics to all their lives. They do it anyway.

But the world is becoming a place that's more conscious of health, nutrition and fitness every day. You're just trying to help him become more modern, really. Maybe some day he'll even smile with newly white teeth, pat you on the back with a hand smelling only of soap, and with minty-fresh breath say "thank you" for starting him down a healthier, more oxygen-rich path.

What am I supposed to do now?

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