All Smoked Out

By Dirk Hanson 04/07/11

Can "tobacco-free" companies resort to random breathalyzers, fines and firings to stub out stubborn smokers?

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Anti-smoking activists are targeting American workers

Can businesses legally refuse to hire smokers? They will if some groups have their way.  While over 20% of Americans continue to smoke, the New York Times recently reported, a growing number of companies are pursuing strict anti-smoking policies as they shift from “smoke-free” to “smoker-free” workplaces. It started with hospitals and medical businesses. The move reflects the general feeling that “softer efforts—like banning smoking on company grounds, offering cessation programs and increasing health care premiums for smokers—have not been powerful-enough incentives to quit,” according to the Times. Join Together notes that because of new “tobacco-free” hiring policies, applicants can be fired for smoking, or if they are caught smoking after being hired. Some firms even force applicants to take urine tests for nicotine. As Dr. Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health warned: “Unemployment is also bad for health.” The Center for American Progress (CAP) said that “Scotts Miracle-Gro Company began firing smokers in 2006, while the railroad company Union Pacific has also “stopped hiring smokers in those states where it is legal to do so.” But as Summer Johnson writes for CAP: “If the goal is to improve the public’s health by reducing the prevalence of smoking, then employers should use positive, incentive-based mechanisms. Numerous companies, including General Motors, Union Pacific and Johnson & Johnson have been recognized for offering comprehensive and effective programs to promote a variety of healthy behaviors, including smoking cessation. Companies do not have to resort to random breathalyzers, fines, and firings to induce healthy behaviors.” In defense of the anti-smoking crusade, the chief executive of St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, Mo., told the Times: “We felt it was unfair for employees who maintained healthy lifestyles to have to subsidize those who do not. Essentially that’s what happens.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]