A Smoke Screen for Discrimination

Corporations around the world have been encouraging smoke-free workplaces by placing limits on how often and where employees can use tobacco during working hours. However, it seems that some corporations want to move beyond smoke-free workplaces to entirely smoke-free workforces. In January 2006, Weyco, Inc=, a medical-benefits administration company, began random tobacco breathalyzer tests to determine whether employees have been smoking on or off the job. Employees who failed the test were fined $50 if not enrolled in a smoking cessation program. Four employees who opted out of the test were fired. Scotts Miracle-Gro Company has declared that it will begin firing smokers in October 2006. The railroad company Union Pacific has also stopped hiring workers in those states where it is legal to do so.

These types of policies are beginning to catch on, going so far as to discourage smokers from even applying for jobs. Weyco stopped hiring smokers in 2003; and in December 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it would no longer hire smokers “as a matter of principle.” Last year, Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan also began to ask on job applications whether applicants smoked. Applicants who smoke will not be hired for full-time positions.

These policies differ from previous workplace smoking policies designed to protect non-smokers in the workplace. Previous policies have sought to prevent smoking during the workday to avoid subjecting innocent non-smokers to dangerous second-hand smoke. However, these smoke-free workforce policies seek to control smokers’ behavior off the job as well and to punish them for unhealthy lifestyles.

Policies that permit firing and refusal to hire smokers ought not be tolerated by progressives. Such policies violate basic rights to employment and freedom outside the workplace, are discriminatory, and are likely to do little to decrease the prevalence of smoking. Creating smoke-free workforces through termination or denial of employment is unjustifiably punitive and should be rejected in favor of positive health promotion incentives and programs.

Companies facing skyrocketing healthcare costs argue that requiring smokers to quit or avoiding hiring smokers altogether will reduce health insurance premiums. Many companies already pass the increased premium costs onto their employees, but even this does not compensate for the increase in smoker’s healthcare expenditures — costs that are passed on in future premium increases for employers and non-smokers alike. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that medical costs for smokers is $75 billion. Moreover, smokers are believed to be less productive than non-smokers. The CDC also reports that companies lose $82 billion in productivity from the one in five Americans who smoke. Thus, removing smokers from the pool of workers will both increase productivity and reduce health expenditures. Firing or not hiring smokers makes good business sense.

The WHO policy to refuse employment to smokers is the first attempt to justify the policy on moral grounds. They claim that their policy stands as a testament to the importance of smoke-free living for the public’s health. They argue that the WHO has a responsibility to demonstrate the importance of tobacco control and to ensure that this commitment “is reflected in all of its work, including its recruitment practices.” WHO argues that it is fulfilling a moral obligation to model proper employer behavior by creating disincentives for smokers by denying them employment opportunities.

Despite these economic and moral arguments, progressives should stand up to reject these policies of refusing to retain or hire smokers. While the public health goals of such policies are clear and commendable, promoting the healthy lifestyles and reducing risky behaviors ought not come at the price of basic freedoms. Arguably, smokers have the right to smoke, particularly when they are not harming anyone else with their behavior. A person’s employment status should be based on merit and job performance, not on their personal behavior. No matter how important the public health goal or how dramatic the economic consequences, it is unjust to threaten smokers’ livelihoods in order to induce them to quit. Such policies arguably constitute discrimination against people engaged in a legal, albeit unhealthy, behavior.

Moreover, these policies target smokers, yet ignore the other forms of unhealthy behavior that also contribute to high health care costs. Surely, we would consider it ludicrous to base employment decisions on the basis of other legal but unhealthy behaviors, such as eating Krispy Kremes, not wearing sunscreen at the beach, or riding a bicycle without a helmet. It is already illegal for the WHO, Weyco, and Scotts Miracle-Gro to refuse to hire people with a family history of cancer or who have diabetes. Nor should it be acceptable for these companies to fire obese individuals, those who practice unsafe sex, or drive without wearing a seatbelt. Smoking, another legal yet unhealthy behavior, should not be treated differently than any of the other unhealthy behaviors that millions of employees engage in every day. Discrimination against smokers in the service of economic gains or public health goals ought not be tolerated.

Opposition to these smoker discrimination polices does not mean being pro-smoking or against smoking cessation programs in the workplace. Smoking cessation is key for healthy workplaces and healthy workforces. Companies should continue to encourage smoking cessation and other healthy behaviors. If the goal is to improve the public’s health by reducing the prevalence of smoking, then employers should use positive, incentive-based mechanisms. Numerous companies, including General Motors, Union Pacific and Johnson & Johnson have been recognized for offering comprehensive and effective programs to promote a variety of healthy behaviors, including smoking cessation. Companies do not have to resort to random breathalyzers, fines, and firings to induce healthy behaviors. A smoke-free workplace and workforce is possible through positive, rather than punitive, policies.

Companies that legitimately want to improve their employees’ health ought to be commended. This positive goal of improving the public’s health could justify certain beneficial policies such as bonuses for weight loss or reduced insurance premiums for enrolling in a smoking cessation program. However, using health or economic arguments to justify discriminating against an entire class of workers is morally unjustifiable.

If employers want to reduce health insurance premiums, they should eliminate risk behaviors among their workers, not risky workers from their employment pool. Companies ought not discriminate to reduce their healthcare costs but be innovative in finding ways to promote healthy lifestyles.

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