Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Contra Costa Times Article Questions Whether Anti-Smoking Measures Are Going Too Far

An article in yesterday's Contra Costa Times questions whether anti-smoking measures are going too far, especially by moving from smoke-free workplaces to smoker-free workplaces.

In the article, I am quoted, pointing out a number of arguments why I oppose smoker-free workplace policies that are being supported by several U.S. anti-smoking groups, and publicly opposed by none.

"This once black-and-white issue has grown gray for Boston University professor Michael Siegel, a tobacco control advocate. When Siegel learned that the Ohio-based Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. had unveiled a policy requiring employees to quit smoking or be fired, as well as prohibiting the hiring of smokers, he had to object. 'It's very troublesome to me because this is crossing the line from being an anti-smoking movement to an anti-smoker movement,' he said. 'It's one thing to clear out the smoke in a workplace, (rather) than the smoker from the workplace.' It also could lead businesses to not hire employees based on other health care concerns that could boost costs, such as obesity. Then, there's the concern about an employer asserting control over what workers do on their off-hours. 'I really think it's an undue intrusion into the privacy of employees,' Siegel said.

A Miracle-Gro representative describes the policy, which took effect this month, as a move to create a culture of wellness. She acknowledges that rising health care costs were a factor. Manager Su Lok says the company recently opened a multimillion-dollar wellness center, with a medical and fitness center. 'Our chairman's goal is to have associates who have a more balanced lifestyle. A component of that is becoming a tobacco-free culture workforce,' she said. The company reimbursed employees who attended smoking cessation courses before the announcement made nearly a year ago, Lok says."

The Rest of the Story

This is an important article, and I hope that many tobacco control groups and advocates see it, because it emphasizes the line between promotion of smoke-free workplaces and smoker-free workplaces. This is a line between what I view as public health and what I see as unjustified discrimination, lifestyle policing, and undue intrusion into privacy.

Scotts Miracle-Gro apparently defended its discrimination against smokers in hiring by arguing that it is trying to achieve "a more balanced lifestyle" among its employees. Thus, Scotts is readily admitting that this is indeed about becoming the lifestyle police for its workforce. What business does the company have policing the lifestyles of its employees, other than those aspects of lifestyle that directly affect job performance?

To promote healthy lifestyles through education, health services, and incentives is an appropriate public health intervention. Corporate wellness programs are a cornerstone of employee health promotion. But creating a workforce with a particular lifestyle that has no direct bearing on job performance by refusing to hire, categorically, members of a particular group, is not public health. It is employment discrimination, plain and simple.

I therefore agree with the California coordinator of the Smoker's Club, who argued that "smokers are being cast aside and discriminated against."

He is exactly right. Policies like that of Scotts Miracle-Gro, which are growing in number, do cast aside smokers and discriminate against them.

I'm still waiting for a U.S. anti-smoking group, any of them, to publicly condemn such discrimination. But I'm not holding my breath.

No comments: