For years now, employers have banned smokers from lighting up in the office. But now, with evidence that smokers have higher medical costs, the question is: Should employers ban hiring smokers altogether?
The issue is now center stage in Forth Worth, Texas, where the City Council is considering it this week as it opens debate on a measure that would ban the hiring of any smoker for a city job. Many of the specifics of the ban, such as how the measure would be enforced, and what would happen to current employees who smoke, have yet to be determined. The final proposal on the ban is to be sent to the mayor's office by May 7. But if it were to pass, it would mark the first such ban for a major city in the U.S., according to news reports. A growing number of private employers, mostly hospitals, have begun instituting bans on hiring smokers, says USA Today; if the job applicant's urine tests positive for nicotine use, the application is rejected. Baylor Health Care System, also in Texas, imposed such a ban in January.
Does a smoking ban make fiscal sense?
"Certainly we put taxpayer dollars into health care for our employees, and anything that might benefit the health -- to make our employees more protective and healthy -- we're going to take a look at," Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a smoker costs an employer about $3,400 more than a nonsmoker in annual health care costs. That number is produced by higher insurance premiums, reduced productivity and absenteeism from the office.
Proponents also argue that the measure could help save lives. After Olmsted, Minn., home to the renowned Mayo Clinic, instituted a countywide workplace smoking ban in 2007, the incidence of heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths was cut in half, according to a report by the MinnPost.
Is employer discrimination against smokers legal?
There's open debate about whether such measures represent employment discrimination. "It's a very dangerous precedent," Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, told USA Today. He says the restrictions punish smokers rather than helping them quit.
The USA Today report notes that 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed smoker-protection laws, but 21 states have no rules against nicotine-free hiring. And federal laws don't treat smokers as a protected class.
There are about half as many smokers in America today as there were in 1965, but smokers who might be affected by the Fort Worth program aren't so thrilled by the prospect.
"I feel like the next thing they want to do is take DNA samples to figure out if anybody is going to have any kind of diseases going forward," Vince Chasteen, president of the city's employee association, told WFAA, a local TV station.
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