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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Don't Smoke If You Got 'Em

Let us stipulate that smokers are the scum of the earth--

(WOS: "What did you just say?" "Nothing, Hon.")

--OK, everybody we have to keep it down.

Where were we? Ah, yes: Smokers.

--loathsome bottom-dwellers unfit for membership in polite society--does that mean they can't get a job?

Some companies--frequently hospitals and other health-related entities, but others as well--have taken the idea of a "smoke-free workplace" to the next level, refusing even to hire smokers. These companies reason that smokers cost too much money, in the form of both higher healthcare costs and reduced productivity. Furthermore, particularly in the case of the healthcare industry, employers feel that employees should practice the healthy lifestyle choices that these industries promote.

On the face of it, these companies have a point. Why should they pay higher costs to subsidize the destructive behavior of their employees? Smokers hardly strike us as a "protected class." Racial and sex discrimination is reprehensible--and rightly outlawed--because employers must not discriminate against people because of innate or, in the case of many disabilities, acquired characteristics. On the other hand, when a behavior is chosen--smoking, drinking, homosexuality--a privately owned company would seem to have the right to weigh it disfavorably in its hiring preferences.

(Digression: Yes, we know: It was a joke. EOD)

Still, much as we personally dislike smoking, and much as we wish everyone would just stop doing it, we have a problem with this policy. Yes, one could argue that smoking is a choice, and one could just as easily choose not to do it if one truly wanted a job at a non-smoking firm. At the same time, though, smoking is a legal activity, and as long as one's smoking does not incovenience other employees (which the near-universality of smoke-free workplaces generally ensures), one should not automatically be banned from a job because of a smoking habit. (Well, OK, maybe from the position of Chairman of Stop Smoking America, but otherwise. . . .)

What about the argument that companies are simply trying to promote health? As Dr. Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health (no fan of cigarettes himself) said, "Unemployment is also bad for health." We sympathize with the economic argument: We, too, have a problem with the idea that non-smokers must bear an additional burden for the bad habits of their fellow citizens, but the solution seems quite simple: According to federal estimates, a smoker costs an employer approximately $3,400 a year in additional health-care expenses. Why not just deduct $3,400 from the annual salary of a smoker?

Call it a Start-Your-New-Year's-Resolution Early tax.

"Hospitals Shift Smoking Bans to Smoker Ban"

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