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Barring smokers from employment isn't right, researchers say

January 21, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Smoker1Smoking bans in public buildings, workplaces, even at some outdoor venues are now commonplace. And 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, say researchers in an essay published today in the journal Tobacco Control.

Policies prohibiting the hiring of smokers have become much more popular in the past year, a co-author of the report, Dr. Michael Siegel, said today in an interview. One U.S. company, for example, has stopped hiring smokers, has made smoking outside the workplace a fireable offense and even 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 the widespread adoption of such policies may 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 may 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," says Siegel, such as the fact that they may reduce absenteeism and increase productivity. "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 will 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 healthcare costs. About half of all states have laws that protect employees from being fired or not hired because they smoke. But other states have no such protections.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

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Comments (30)

The only way that addiction to a smoked substance differs from any other addiction is in the poisoning of the workplace with second hand smoke. If an employer should not fire tobacco addicts, neither should they fire active alcoholics, cocaine addicts, heroin addicts, and most particularly crack addicts who smoke their pipes where other employees must breathe the fumes. Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace is commonplace to the point of banality. The author fails to explain why tobacco addicts alone should be singled out for favorable treatment.

Smokers are not in a protected class. They ought to be discriminated against, and such discrimination is entirely legal. They offend.

Barring the hiring of smokers couldn't possibly hold up in court. It is discriminatory.

That said, there should be workplace programs, clinic programs, neighborhood programs, hospitals, community centers, anywhere people go, to help people quit smoking. Moreover, there needs to be more effort everywhere so that kids don't start in the first place.

And yet, also on the Times' front page: "Cleaner air, longer life: Study provides evidence". What do I know?

Rather than pick on smokers, high cholesterol, etc... maybe companies should refuse to hire on the basis of being stupid, self centered and abusive... Oh, Wait, that would mean that they would lose two thirds of their managers and executives. Hmm.. OTOH, that would mean the rest of us would have lower blood pressure, no need to smoke to relieve the tension and might actually put out a quality product..... ;-)

The title of the link on the front page is misleading. It states "Workplace smoking bans may not make sense" when the article talks about not employing smokers.

"Workplace smoking bans may not make sense" --- was the title of the article on the website under the photo. This is entirely misleading. Of course smoking bans make sense in the workplace, but I do agree it is going overboard not to hire someone because of it. Employers and insurance companies wanted all this drug testing stuff---- and the courts went along with it. The cat is out of the bag. This is about privacy.

Being black, Muslim, poor or a smoker should not make you a second class citizen.

This is ludicrous and discriminatory. What's next? Banning me from employment because I'm diabetic? My condition certainly costs companies much more in health insurance premiums than smokers do.

Employment Discrimination against smokers would make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Maybe then the faulty research will be examined
regarding SHS & will be exposed.
Drug companies are behind this false alarm. They make millions on drugs that often do not help a smoker to quit, but certainly helps their bottom line.
Mr. Obama would not have a job, if, as an occasional smoker, he could not be "hired". This is a pro-choice Civil Rights issue.

I do see DrNotta's point. We already drug test employees, and refuse to hire them if the test is positive.

What our company did was to charge smokers more for their health insurance premium. This is one big reason companies don't want to hire smokers. (High insurance costs.)

Nice culture. Where did the myth begin that smokers always have a cig hanging out of their mouth? We can cope you know... we can go 13 hrs (standard working day in U.S.) without lighting up. There is no job in the world I want enough to stop smoking either, and quite frankly it is the potential employer's loss... not mine. Meanwhile the stress of living amongst nanny's who know what is best for me, drive me nuts -- I'm lighting up right now so take that.

Its amazing to me that some of you can't seem to grasp the difference between a legal substance, and an illegal one, as well as an intoxicating substance vs one that is not.

Tobacco use doesn't impair your judgement, and isn't illegal, so to compare it to alcohol or drug use is like comparing apples and oranges.

Posters like DrNotta seem to forget that we are supposed to live in a free society where people have the right to offend others as long as they don't inflict harm. Second hand smoke in designated areas doesn't hurt non-smokers at work(take some personal responsibility and avoid those areas), and smoking at home doesn't increase your co-workers chances of getting sick.

Part of living in a free society is having to deal with things you don't agree with. "it offends" is so childish and simple minded that the poster doesn't deserve the freedoms they are given. You don't like it, thats fine, fight to make it illegal. But to say that smokers don't deserve protection from discrimination (for a legal substance) is just one step away from allowing legal discrimination of anything people find "offensive."

Discriminating against someone for something they are legally allowed to do is never right, and while it more acceptable to exclude smokers from smoking inside with others(or on a company's property), to tell them they can't work for you because they smoke at home is ludicrous.

It appears in my fervor, I have misquoted someone. I should have paid more attention to the way comments are displayed. It was Max's comment, not DrNotta that I took issue with, and I apologize!

Let's ban fat people (they cause our health insurance premiums to increase) & people w/ bad breath (it offends me and it smells).

In fact, let's ban anyone who isnt exactly like me! Folks, the world doesnt revolve around you.

Were smoking in the office ? fire them.
Were they smoking in their car on their way to work? get over it, it's a free (sort of) country
.


I think it's unfair to bar people from employment for smoking and even more so in the case of those who do not smoke, but have spouses that smoke. If after work, on his or her own time someone smokes, it has no effect on their work, it does not cause anyone to be exposed to second hand smoke or waste the employer's time...and the cost of health care cannot be a consideration as those costs are increased through those with asthma, diabetes, acid reflux and even women that chose to have maternity coverage, etc. We have the "right to the pursuit of happiness," and although it may not appeal to some of us, others do find the activity fulfilling and enjoyable, just as many enjoy drinking or clubbing or even having a cigar from time to time...as long as it does not affect the quality of your work or reduce your productivity during work (for cigarette breaks), etc. it is no business of the company to ban the activity. You let others liberties go, slowly you'll lose some of your own as well...

I am sick and tierd of being reminded not to smoke, it should be outlawed, for someone trying to stop smoking the bombardment of reminders is only prolonging the temptation and anxiety, boarding on cruel. OK - I get it. What most of you non-smoking advocates fail to realize is there is a 100% chance of death, something like 50% of men and 38% of women will die from some form of cancer, the real issue is quality of life - and the right to choose. If you choose not to smoke - cool - I respect that, but if I choose to smoke - I have no rights, I'm evil, get real - and have a nice day.

Just make the smokers work an extra hour a day unpaid to make up for the 10 minute smoke breaks they take every hour to support their addiction.

I agree with Erica Z. and Mr. T! There IS a difference between legal and illegal substances, as well as substances that are legal and severely alter your mood/consciousness/physical ability, like alcohol can.
I know people that smoke and you would never know unless you had witnessed it yourself. I went over to my neighbors house and they both smoke (in the house (!)-I would have never been able to tell because their house always smelled fresh and clean. Then there are others...........BUT employment is about DOING YOUR JOB! As long as they aren't blowing smoke in the face of others (ha!), which I believe is almost impossible in the workplace anymore, then leave them alone!
As for the insurance issue, there are many factors that will cause insurance to go up, not just smoking. We, as a society, go to the doctor more than ever, over medicated for illness, over worried about illness, we just need to get OVER it already!
We need to stop trying to make everybody "better" and "healthier" and "more aware". We do not live in the age of no information, if anything, we are misinformed more than half the time because all these politicos and factions are trying to control what we do, including smoking!
Pretty soon I won't even be able to scratch my "bottom-line" because I will offend someone or there is a new "illness" that 'may' result!

see you in court....slam dunk discrimination. What's next not letting gays marry because they are smokers

While we're at it, let's disemploy and vilify all the caffeine junkies next, before they move from their gateway drug to less powerful but illegal stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine. What are the healthcare costs in tolerating coffee drinkers with their blood-pressure elevating, heart-attack-inducing, bad-temper-generating substance abuse?

That's sarcasm, for all the megalomaniacal control freaks who are the ones that should be purged from the gene pool. And now, I think I'll go light up even though I don't smoke.

Michael Siegel can hardly be called a "tobacco control advocate." He has a long history of being a smoker's advocate. His latest article is just another piece of his pro-smoking advocacy. I find it interesting that it is never considered discriminatory to force employees to inhale toxic, carcinogenic smoke while working. The usual retorts are "If you don't want to breathe smoke, go work somewhere else." or "they knew the business (restaurant, bar, casino, etc.) allowed smoking when they started working there. If they don't like it, they can go elsewhere." The majority of states, as well as the country as a whole, do not feel any need to protect employees from the known carcinogen which is cigarette smoke. However, when we turn to businesses that do not want to hire/employ smokers, it's a whole different ball game. Smokers, unlike nonsmokers, cannot/will not/should not have to "go work somewhere else." Their "right" to feed their addiction naturally trumps everything else, including nonsmokers rights to a healthy work environment. And those state protections for smokers in employment were the result of Big Tobacco's efforts to ensure that those addicted to their products would not face any deterents to using their products wherever and whenever they wanted to. Businesses should have the right to hire only nonsmokers. Does anyone think that the American Lung Association should be forced to hire smokers? Only Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, those addicted to their products, or those who have bought the Marlboro Man illusion that smoking equals American freedom and independence buy the argument that smokers are or should be a protected class. I find it incredible that smokers should be considered a protected class, but not nonsmokers.

You all are aware you just elected a smoker President of the United States, right?

This is so interesting... addicts of illicit drugs can be barred from employment, so how is this different? There are many "functioning addicts". What about alcohol? Is the woman who MUST have a glass of wine everyday, to lose her job next? And yes, what about food addicts? Will they be separated from people with thyroid problems? Will the pregnant lady munching all day be safe?

But on the flip side, if someone can't limit themselves to the 3 work breaks in the day... then it's a matter of job performance, right? Or if they come in and stink up the environment because the smoke is still lingering on their clothes, hair, etc. The perhaps they are violating a different work policy, just like someone with too much perfume/cologne.

As much as I hate sitting next to someone coming back in from a smoke (it makes my eyes water and nose burn), I don't think we have to ban based on whether they smoke... Employers could offer smoking cessation programs, just like they offer drug treatment resources like Free and Clear. But leave the decision to the employers.. they'll figure out on their own whether they're recruiting and RETAINING the right people.

It's quite interesting to see the personal attacks of Dr. Siegel for suggesting that there are negative effects associated with stigmatization through employment discrimination of smokers. One writer claims that Dr. Siegel is a pro-smoking advocate and the paper he wrote is another example.

Having taken the time to read the paper "Smoker-free workplace policies: developing a model of public health consequences of workplace policies barring employment to smokers", I can not find reference to where the authors suggest people should smoke, or laws be changed to prohibit employment discrimination of smokers.

Instead, the article attempts to weigh the harm of employment discrimination and questions the ethicalness of such a promotion by public health authorities, which should be observing the Hippocratic principles to first do no harm.

Clearly, the viciousness of many of these comments here demonstrate the results of many years of the organized and deliberate stigmatization of smokers by public health authorities. Since much of this was and continues to be funded by tax payer money one needs to question the appropriateness of such programs, to pit neighbor against neighbor.

It is one thing for an employer to make such a decision to discriminate and invade the privacy of the legal behavior of what one does in their off hours. It is quite another when agents of the government and those allegedly acting in the interest of the public health to encourage and promote such practice without consideration of the negative effects.

As for DrNadda's illogical comparison to alcohol, it isn't a matter of someone being drunk or alcoholic. It's the complete zero toleranance of any use of tobacco, and to be comparable would be like an employer sacking everyone who's had any alcohol in their off duty hours or their spouse.

It should also be noted that alcoholics are protected by the federal government under the ADA, and that you can not discriminate against hiring an alcoholic, and you can not sack an alcoholic if their off duty alcohol use doesn't interfere with their job performance, or the are not intoxicated on the job.

Alcohol and drug addictions are considered a qualifying disabilities by the feds under the American Disability Act, however it seems that smokers are the ones being singled out for their addiction and in many states being denied protection.

As a non-smoker I also object to being subject to urine tests just to prove I don't use tobacco, and can thank these smoker haters for creating another invasion of my privacy and hazard to my continued employment from a false positive.

 


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