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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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