Friday, November 04, 2005

On the Ends Justifying the Means: Discrimination Against Smokers as a Prime Example

I received quite a response to my recent posts (post 1 post 2) about the trend towards policies that make off-the-job smoking a condition for employment (hiring or firing). Most interesting, however, was not the comments that I did receive but those I did not receive.

First, there were no comments from anti-smoking advocates which challenged my basic contention that policies by which employers refuse to hire smokers represents a form of workplace discrimination, at least in a policy sense.

I think there's good reason for this. It is difficult to argue that a policy by which employers make judgments about potential employees based not on their individual merit and qualifications for the job, but based on the group or category to which they belong, does not represent discrimination, since this is essentially the very definition of the term.

To see this most clearly, let's take a policy by which an employer decides only to hire individuals who run at least 10 miles per week (a group which, incidentally, I joined recently in training for a half-marathon). Let's stipulate, for the purposes of this argument, that there is research showing that on a population level, people who run at least 10 miles a week tend to have significantly higher levels of productivity, less absenteeism, better retention, and better health (this assumption is perhaps not too much of a stretch). Let's further assume that the policy makes an exemption for individuals who cannot run 10 miles a week for physical reasons (so the policy does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act). But if you're a relatively healthy person in good physical shape then if you don't indicate that you run at least 10 miles a week, you are not eligible to work at this company.

I think it's quite clear that such a policy would represent workplace discrimination. Even if it is not discrimination in the legal sense (an employer could potentially defend the policy by arguing that level of physical activity is directly tied to job performance, health, absenteeism, productivity, and a host of other important employee attributes that are directly applicable to the ability of an individual to perform the job), the policy clearly represents discrimination in the policy sense.

The problem is that potential employees are being judged not on their individual merit, but based on the group to which they belong. As valid as the data may be showing that "we" who run 10 miles a week are more productive on a population level, it is indisputably true that there is going to be overlap in the qualifications of individual applicants in the two groups:

The best (most productive in the workplace) non-runner is almost certainly going to be better than the worst non-runner.

Well the same is true with smokers. Almost undoubtedly, the best (most productive in the workplace) smoker is going to be far better qualified for a job than the worst nonsmoker.

So while it may be true that on a population level smokers tend to be less productive, it is certainly not necessarily true on an individual basis. Thus, on its face, a policy of not hiring smokers implies that one is making employment decisions on factors other than an individual's qualifications for the job.

By definition, that is discrimination. And I think it would be difficult to argue that it is not wrong. Therefore, I think it would be difficult to argue that it is something that tobacco control groups and advocates should not strongly renounce.

The Rest of the Story

Interestingly, a second comment that I did not receive from any anti-smoking advocates was that discrimination against smokers in the workplace is something that we as tobacco control practitioners should strongly renounce.

Instead, I heard three major defenses to policies that, by admission of the commenters, do represent workplace discrimination:

1. First, one argument was that although these policies are discriminatory, it doesn't matter because if smokers don't like it, they can simply quit.

2. Second, another argument was that although these policies represent discrimination, it's only smokers we're talking about, and don't we have better and more important things we should be doing with our time as tobacco control practitioners.

3. Third, a rather common argument was that although these policies are discriminatory, they have two advantageous effects: they create a more productive workforce and they improve public health by creating a strong incentive for smokers to quit smoking.

As far as the first argument goes, I think it fails because discrimination is wrong, and we shouldn't require people to change the category in which they belong in order to justify our discriminatory policies.

Can you imagine someone arguing that discrimination against individuals who have tattoos is perfectly fine, because if these individuals want a particular job, they can simply remove their tattoos?

Or in the example above, that a runners-only workplace is perfectly acceptable because if anyone wants to work there they can simply start running 10 miles a week? (and no, I'm not talking about a running store where it might be appropriate to hire only runners)

If anything, I believe that evidence supports that it is far easier to start running 10 miles a week (I did it and I never ran before in my life) or remove a tattoo then it is for many people to quit smoking. But the point is - why should they have to? Discrimination is wrong not because people cannot change the behavior or characteristic at issue, but because they shouldn't have to.

As far as the second argument goes, I think it fails because it's quite callous and insensitive and because I don't think that we as public health practitioners have anything more important to do then to first ensure that we are practicing public health based on sound ethical principles. If it is wrong to discriminate, then we shouldn't support discriminatory policies, no matter how important we think the work on our desk that we'd like to be focusing on might be. Ethics should not be viewed as something that merely gets in the way of what we are trying to accomplish.

And as far as the third argument goes, I think it fails because I do not believe that the ends necessarily justifies the means. Having a more productive workforce may be a good thing, but not if it comes at the expense of discrimination. Reducing smoking rates is also a good thing, but it doesn't justify the use of discrimination as a means to get there.

The rest of the story, then, is that when something is wrong, it is wrong, and it should not be justified or rationalized away. Not only do I believe that discrimination against smokers in employment is wrong, I believe that the issue is important enough that it warrants serious attention in tobacco control.

In many ways, I believe we (the tobacco control movement) are the ones who started society along this path of employment discrimination against smokers. And I think we are the ones who therefore have a responsibility to put an end to it.

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