Discrimination Against Smokers?

Don DraperA growing number of job-seekers are facing new requirements: “no smoking.” And this doesn’t just apply at work, but in their personal and home life as well.

As smoking bans spread across the country, more and more employers — primarily hospitals — are also banning smokers themselves. They refuse to hire applicants whose urine tests positive for nicotine, which includes not only cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, but also patches.

These tobacco-free hiring policies are meant to promote health and lower the costs of insurance premiums. After voting last month to stop hiring smokers, Dave Fotsch of Idaho’s Central District Health Department, explained that “We have to walk the walk if we talk the talk.”

Every year, 443,000 Americans die from smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, costing the U.S. $193 billion in medical bills and lower productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC claims that 19.3% of American adults smoked last year, down from 42.4% in 1965.

“We’re not denying smokers their right to tobacco products. We’re just choosing not to hire them,” says Marcy Marshall of the Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., which begins its nicotine-free hiring next month.

Workplace Discrimination

However, many question the fairness or even legality of the policies. For some, these measure even stir outrage, even among members of the public health community. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, states that the policies represent employment discrimination. “It’s a very dangerous precedent,” says. Restrictions punish smokers instead of giving them the help they need to quit. Some also worries about a “slippery slope” precedent. “What’s next? Are you not going to hire overly-caffeinated people?” asks Nate Shelman, Boise’s KBOI radio talk show host.

After several major companies like Alaska Airlines imposed hiring bans on smokers a few decades ago, the tobacco industry and the American Civil Liberties Union lobbied for smoker rights. As a result, 29 states and the District of Columbia passed smoker-protection laws. Yet many of the laws exempt non-profit groups and the health care industry, and 21 states – including Washington – have no rules against nicotine-free hiring.  According to Chris Kuzynski of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal laws allow nicotine hiring discrimination because smokers aren’t recognized as a protected class.

Yet despite pushback from workers rights groups and employment law attorneys, the tide is moving decidedly in the direction of bans on smokers. The administrative director At Bon Secours Virginia Health System, says this will benefit companies’ bottom line since health care costs for tobacco users are $3,000 to $4,000 higher per year than for non-smokers. Smoking can also be disruptive to productivity since workers with nicotine addictions take more breaks.

Those who experience difficulty collecting benefits from their L&I claim should contact a workers’ compensation attorney for help with their case.

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Emery Reddy