Sunday, August 20, 2006

European Anti-Smoking Groups Condemn Employment Discrimination Against Smokers; Why are U.S. Groups Afraid to Speak Out?

According to an article on, two European anti-smoking organizations have condemned the idea of refusing to hire smokers or firing existing smoking employees. The statements of these two groups comes in response to a European Commission announcement that the European Union (EU) anti-discrimination policy does not apply to employers refusing to hire smokers. The Commission had issued that declaration in response to an inquiry after an Irish company issued a job announcement making it clear that smokers need not apply.

The head of a French anti-smoking association and a Belgian anti-smoking foundation spoke out strongly against these policies, noting that although they may be legal, they are misguided and wrong.

According to the article: "Even the commission's usual allies in the fight against smoking were left dazed by its position, with some anti-smoking campaigners calling it counterproductive. Professor Gerard Dubois, who heads a French anti-smoking association: 'We never asked for it, it's ridiculous and totally useless in the fight against smoking. Smokers are victims of addiction and they have to be helped,' Dubois added. 'What happens if somebody starts smoking, takes it up again, are they going to be fired,' he stressed.

Doctor Luc Joris, who heads the Belgian anti-smoking foundation, said that denying a smoker a job was the wrong approach to helping the person give up tobacco. 'I'm for a tobacco-free society, but once a smoker is addicted it's complicated,' he said. 'We can't put him in a situation where he can't work. That's going a bit far, afterwards are we going to ask beer and champagne drinkers not to apply,' Joris said."

[Apparently, this quote was misattributed to Dr. Joris and a Belgian anti-smoking foundation, and should have been attributed to Luk Joossens with the Foundation against Cancer.]

The Rest of the Story

It is nice to see anti-smoking groups standing up and speaking out publicly against employmnet discrimination directed at smokers. It is reassuring to see anti-smoking groups that recognize that this is not in any way a public health intervention, but a discriminatory, undue intrusion into employee privacy and autonomy.

Unfortunately, one has to go all the way to Europe to find any good reason in the tobacco control community on this issue. Or at least any that is publicly expressed. I am now aware of 4 anti-smoking groups that have spoken out publicly against employment discrimination directed at smokers: these groups are all outside the U.S. (Great Britain, Australia, Belgium, and France). To the best of my knowledge, not a single U.S. anti-smoking group or advocate (other than me) has publicly condemned the unwarranted intrusion into privacy and unjustified discrimination that these policies represent.

And the silence of the U.S. tobacco control community holds not only for policies by which employers refuse to hire smokers, but also for policies by which employers fire existing employees who smoke.

Let me focus the issue by noting that I am not talking about the legality of these discriminatory policies. In most of the states, and in most other countries, these policies are perfectly legal. But that doesn't make the policies right, and anti-smoking groups should make it clear to the public that these policies are not justified.

It's not clear to me why U.S. anti-smoking groups are afraid to speak out. Do they really support this kind of discrimination, or are they simply afraid to speak out because of the McCarthyistic-like mindset that leads to attacks on anyone within the movement who dissents from the extremist agenda?

It's probably a little bit of both, but either way, I think it's an embarrassment for us.

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