Sunday, December 18, 2005

More Backlash on WHO Smoker Discrimination: Washington Post Carries Op-Ed Condemning Action

In an op-ed piece published Sunday in the Washington Post, my colleague Leonard Glantz, a professor of health law, bioethics and human rights at the Boston University School of Public Health, criticizes the World Health Organization's (WHO) recently-announced policy of hiring only nonsmokers as being discriminatory and unduly intrusive of individual privacy, and as representing a form of bigotry.

"By this action WHO has transformed its war against smoking to a war against smokers," Glantz declares. "With the hanging of the 'No Smokers Need Apply' sign on its door, WHO has joined a long line of bigots who would not hire people of color, members of religious minorities, or disabled or gay people because of who they are or what they lawfully do."

Glantz points out that the new policy looks beyond bona fide job requirements to group membership as its criterion for employment, putting it in the same class as bigoted policies that have refused to hire people of various other categories:

"What WHO's new policy says is that it will not hire any member of a group that constitutes 25 percent of adults in the United States -- no matter how well qualified, dedicated and caring they are -- because of activities away from the workplace that have no impact on their job performance. Under WHO's policy, if Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler applied for a job, only Hitler, the sole nonsmoker in the group (and someone who would not allow anyone to smoke near him), would be eligible for consideration."

The piece argues that the same reasoning that led to this policy could just as easily lead to a policy that refuses to hire obese persons. Or to a policy that leads to the hiring of only smokers.

Glantz concludes that this policy "encourages the most coercive form of social control short of outlawing smoking. Other than the very rich, people must work, and WHO's position is that smokers should not be allowed to work," and that to protect against this, laws that prohibit discrimination against potential employees for lawful, off-the-job behavior are required in all states.

The Rest of the Story

When the Boston Globe and the Washington Post both publish pieces highly critical of the lengths to which the anti-smoking movement is going, I think it is high time that anti-smoking groups and advocates take notice.

Beyond the backlash that is occurring and its implications for the credibility of the tobacco control movement, the piece itself deserves undiverted attention because of its compelling argument for why this policy is not only totally inappropriate, but also highly damaging to some basic societal principles.

I think Glantz is right to call WHO to task for arguing that its policy is based on some sort of "principle." Because if there is any principle here, it is that smokers are second-class citizens who are not deserving of the opportunity to have a job, and certainly not a job in the public health field.

It is also the principle that employment discrimination is acceptable and tolerable, as long as the group being discriminated against is politically unpopular enough.

And it is, as well, the principle that intruding into the privacy of the home of an employee is acceptable and actually desired.

Applying this "principle" to other lawful, off-the-job behaviors such as eating fatty foods and not getting enough exercise would, as Glantz argues, lead to policies by which employers would (and should) refuse to hire obese persons. If that is a level of discrimination that seems distasteful, then so is the WHO's discrimination against smokers.

But the most important point which I think this op-ed piece adds to comments that I have previously made is that this policy is not merely inappropriate, unjustified, and distasteful; it is actually a form of bigotry, and it is in many ways comparable to bigotry of other forms that are not distasteful, but just plain degrading and damaging to an entire group of people.

So far, I am not aware of any U.S. anti-smoking group or advocate (other than me) who has publicly spoken out against the WHO's discriminatory policy or any similar policy by employers such as Weyco, Scotts Miracle-Gro, or Montgomery County.

That is, quite simply, a shame.

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