Monday, December 19, 2005

Crown Laboratories Will No Longer Hire Smokers or Provide Them With Health Insurance

In what seems to be the almost daily announcement of a new employer adopting a discriminatory hiring policy against smokers, Crown Laboratories (Johnson City, Tennessee), a manufacturer of sunscreen, has just announced a new policy by which the company will no longer hire smokers nor provide health insurance for existing employees who smoke.

According to an article in the Kingsport Times-News, Crown Laboratories will immediately institute a policy of not hiring anyone who smokes (or uses smokeless tobacco) and as of January 1 of 2007, will not provide health insurance to any existing smoker (or smokeless tobacco user) who has failed to quit. The policy applies to any use of tobacco products, whether at work, at home, or anywhere else.

The rationale for the policy is apparently two-fold. First, the company is trying to reduce health care costs.

"'The costs associated with health care are just going astronomically through the roof,' he [Jeff Bedard - the company CEO] said. 'We've experienced three years in a row where we've had 30 percent health care increases.' ... 'The cost of insurance is $100 higher per employee, per month, due to having to cover smokers,' Bedard said."

"Bedard is hoping to reduce costs not only by eliminating smokers from the insurance plan, but also by improving the overall health status of the rest of his employees through a companywide wellness program managed by Wilson Pharmacy and Home Health. The program is mandatory for everyone on Crown's insurance policy, and it is designed to motivate employees to adopt good health habits like exercising and eating a balanced diet."

"'This is the way that health care is going to go in the future,' said Jeff Bedard, the company's chief executive officer. 'They're going to penalize people who choose to not take care of their own health.'"

The second rationale for the policy is that Bedard doesn't feel that having an employee who smokes is consistent with producing a product that prevents skin cancer.

"'We're a pharmaceutical company, and we're a health care company. We provide products that keep people from getting skin cancers,' he said. 'It's hard for us as a company to go out and promote to the world that you shouldn't go to tanning beds, and you shouldn't lay out in the sun, and you need to protect your body when I've got people hanging out in the back smoking area lighting up cigarettes. It's a real moral dilemma. So we made the decision that if we're going to be a health care company, we need to be a healthy company and we need to promote wellness.'"

Bedard did address the contention that the policy is intruding into the privacy of employees.

"'There have been a few people who have been concerned about us prying into their personal lives,' Bedard said. '(They think), ‘Is it really your business if I smoke at home, or is it really your business if I smoke, period?' And my answer is, it's not my business unless it costs the company money. As CEO of this company, I've got to be a good steward of its financial health. And when the financial health of this company is impacted by a habit that I don't see as necessary to anyone's life, then yes, I do have that right.'"

The Rest of the Story

Even if the company had a reasonable rationale for deciding not to provide smoking employees with health insurance, there is no valid principle upon which to base the decision not to hire smokers at all. Since the company has already announced that it will not provide health insurance for smoking employees, what further purpose could it serve to eliminate smokers from the pool of applicants who are eligible to work at this company?

The CEO has suggested that having a smoking employee is not consistent with manufacturing sunscreen. But that is a baseless and dangerous suggestion. If the CEO is truly concerned about the consistency of employees' personal behavior with the company's mission, then he should be refusing to hire anyone who does not use adequate amounts of sunscreen when they are outside, and for that matter, he should refuse to hire anyone who doesn't use his company's sunscreen product.

And probably, he should start refusing to hire anyone with fair skin, since that's a huge risk factor for developing skin cancer. And anyone who's ever used a tanning salon should definitely be off the list of potential applicants for the company. In fact, a background check system should be used to investigate whether a potential employee has ever been to a tanning salon, and the application process should be terminated immediately if the investigation turns up positive.

There are 27 tanning salons in and around Johnson City, and I'm sure those salons would be happy to share their records to help Crown Laboratories determine whether any potential employee is truly consistent with the company's mission of preventing skin cancer.

And perhaps Bedard should start monitoring his employees for how much time they spend out in the sun. More than three hours in the sun a day should certainly preclude someone from working at the company, and for existing employees, should result in denying them health insurance coverage.

It is also curious that while Bedard admits that diet and exercise are also critical health concerns and contributors to skyrocketing health care costs, it is only smoking that precludes a potential employee from working at the company or an existing employee from being provided with health insurance. Eating a crappy diet or being a complete couch potato have no implications for employment or health insurance, even though obesity has been shown to result in comparable, if not higher, health care costs than smoking.

I think that this discrimination and this unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of employees has gone too far. And there's only one thing, short of laws that prevent this type of discrimination, that I think could help bring it to an end.

And that is if anti-smoking groups in this country were to stand up and start condemning these policies, and start pointing out that these types of discriminatory and intrusive policies do not represent legitimate public health approaches to the problem of tobacco use.

I think that anti-smoking organizations have a responsibility to speak out, because in at least some ways, it is us (the tobacco control movement) that has contributed to the social climate that is propelling these types of policies forward. And so I think we bear the responsibility of putting an end to it.

So far, I'm not aware of a single U.S. anti-smoking group or advocate other than me speaking out against these types of policies, but I'll be the first to report it if any group or advocate does.

No comments: