Refusal to hire smokers criticized
Smoking bans in public buildings, workplaces and at some outdoor venues are commonplace. Becoming more common is the practice of barring...
Los Angeles Times
Smoking bans in public buildings, workplaces and at some outdoor venues are commonplace. Becoming more common is the practice of barring smokers from employment. But this approach is unfair and may have unintended consequences that do more harm than good, researchers say in an essay published in the journal Tobacco Control.
Policies banning the hiring of smokers have gained popularity in the past year, a co-author of the report, Dr. Michael Siegel, said Wednesday. One U.S. company, for example, has stopped hiring smokers, has made smoking outside the workplace grounds for firing and has extended its smoking ban to employees' spouses.
Siegel, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, is a tobacco-control advocate. But he and co-author Brian Houle, of the University of Washington, fear that a widespread adoption of such policies might make smokers nearly unemployable, cause them to lose their health insurance and affect their health and that of their families.
Moreover, they say, refusing to hire smokers is discriminatory and might lead to the adoption of other selective employment practices, such as not hiring people who are overweight or who have high cholesterol.
"People have thought about the positive benefits of these programs," such as the fact that they might reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, Siegel said. "But we don't think people have thought through the negative consequences. We're looking at this from a broader public-health perspective."
Tobacco-control advocates are divided over the merits of barring smokers from the workplace. Some fear that speaking out against the employment bans would get them branded as "traitors to the cause," Siegel said.
"Smoking is a very powerful addiction," he said. "Tobacco-control practitioners have naturally become very frustrated that it's so difficult to get people to quit. The problem is that we can't let that frustration cloud our vision about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. This represents employment discrimination. And, I believe, from a public-health perspective, we need to shun that."
Employers typically favor positive approaches to encourage healthy employee behavior, such as free smoking-cessation classes. But Siegel predicts that workplace bans will become more popular as employers look for every approach to cut health-care costs.
About half of all states have laws that protect employees from being fired or not hired because they smoke. But other states, including Washington, have no such protections.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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