Smoke-Free Policy Triggers Strange Debate

The decision by a Tennessee hospital not to hire smokers is apparently provoking some controversy, even though both private firms and governmental bodies have been doing it for more than 30 years, several courts have held that it is both legal and constitutional, and an ever growing number of major companies have similar policies, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, the father of the movement who recently debated the issue on Fox News.

The major incentive for a smoke-free (like a drug-free) workforce is generally that hiring an employee who smokes, even if only at home, imposes huge and totally unnecessary additional costs on the company for health care, disability, absenteeism, lost time for smoke breaks, etc. This total cost averages $12,000 a year per smoker, according to a court which heard testimony under oath in a case in which Banzhaf was involved, and which ruled that the plan was perfectly legal.

If companies hire smokers, these huge additional expenses mean less money for other employees in the form of health insurance, salary, and other benefits — which unfairly forces nonsmokers to subsidize the deadly habits of a small minority (about 19% of adults). Perhaps telling prospects that they may not have a job if they continue to smoke is simply one way of finally imposing personal responsibility on them for the consequences of the risky behavior, suggests Banzhaf.

The hospital is primarily concerned about its health message and mission. A hospital employing smokers sends the wrong message, suggests Banzhaf, and is akin to an animal welfare group employing hunters or a women’s rights group hiring guys who attend strip shows. Indeed, patients are increasingly complaining about seeing employees in hospital garb smoking around hospital entrances, or being nauseated by the smell of tobacco smoke on their persons inside the hospital, he says.

Under our free enterprise system, the companies which create jobs are largely free to set the employment criteria. The marketplace then determines if the decision is a wise one — something which is obviously happening, since more and more firms now hire only nonsmokers, either openly or without public announcement.

The common exceptions to the rule — prohibiting hiring criteria based upon race or gender — occur only because these are immutable characteristics, and because there is no logical reason not to hire a black or a women. But smoking is a habit and a choice, and saving $12,000 per employee is a very logical reason to prefer nonsmokers. If hospitals can be forced to hire smokers, then presumably smokers’ rights groups might have to hire nonsmokers as their spokesmen or role models.

Many firms restrict what employees can do off the job if they believe their actions will adversely affect the company. Major media organizations, for example, frequently prohibit their employees, even in their off hours, from going on junkets or accepting valuable gifts, or even participating in demonstrations about controversial issues like abortion — even though the latter involves freedom of speech. In contrast, courts have repeatedly held there is no legal right to smoke.

In the Fox debate it was suggested that the country’s smokers would soon wind up on unemployment lines. But most smokers already wish to quit, and many no doubt would quit if necessary to gain employment. After all, many workers are already being forced to relocate, spend weekends away from families, take a cut in pay, or even give up tenure to work at a major hospital. Giving up a deadly habit is a much smaller price to pay for good employment, suggests Banzhaf.

Some states do have laws which purport to prevent companies from insisting on a smoke-free workforce, but they are virtually never enforced, says attorney Banzhaf who heads an antismoking organization. Moreover, most have such big loopholes that any company which wants to hire only nonsmokers can easily do so, as both Banzhaf and the American Medical Association recently pointed out. ..

“Smokers should accept the fact that there is no legal or moral right to smoke, and to force others either to put up with their secondhand smoke or the huge costs their smoking imposes on others. Stop whining about ‘discrimination’ when companies make perfectly logical decisions not to hire people whose personal choices impose huge unnecessary costs on the firm and its nonsmoking employees! It’s time to begin accepting personal responsibility,” argues Prof. Banzhaf.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is America’s first antismoking and nonsmokers’ rights organization, and the one primarily responsible for starting the nonsmokers’ rights movement in the U.S., and more recently in promoting smoking bans in many foreign countries

Executive Director and Chief Counsel
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
America’s First Antismoking Organization
2013 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006, USA
(202) 659-4310 **

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One Response to Smoke-Free Policy Triggers Strange Debate

  1. First, they came for the smokers. Now, I hear some companies won’t hire obese people due to supposed “social costs” as well. Who’s gonna be next?

    What the zealots fail to grasp is that over the lifecycle, both smokers and obese people actually SAVE society money by dying younger. Studies have proven that. And anytime the government needs more money, they jack up taxes on smokers. I should know, I used to be one myself.

    This kind of lifestyle discrimination has to stop. Otherwise, everyone’s liberty is in jeopardy.


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