Friday, December 09, 2005

Tobacco Control Leader Speaks Out Against WHO's Discriminatory Employment Policy

In an op-ed commentary in today's Sydney Morning Herald, Dr. Simon Chapman, Professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney and editor of the journal Tobacco Control, questions the justification for the policy announced earlier this week by which the World Health Organization will refuse to hire anyone who smokes.

Dr. Chapman evaluates two potential arguments that could justify such a policy: "employers' rights to optimise their selection of staff (smokers are likely to take more sick leave and breaks) and enlightened paternalism."

He reasons that "The first argument fails because, while it is true that smokers, as a class, are less productive through their absences, many smokers do not take extra sick leave or smoking breaks. By the same logic, employers might just as well refuse to hire younger women because they might get pregnant and take maternity leave, and might later take more time off than men to look after sick children."

In terms of the second argument - enlightened paternalism - he argues: "There are some acts where governments decide that the exercise of free will is so dangerous that individuals should be protected from their poor judgements. Mandatory use of seatbelts and motorcycle helmets are good examples. ... The World Health Organisation would argue that its policy of quit or reduce your chances of employment is founded on similar enlightened paternalism. The comparisons are questionable. Seatbelt and helmet laws represent trivial intrusions on liberty and cannot be compared with demands to stop smoking - something that about 20 per cent of smokers want to continue doing."

"By the same paternalistic precepts, employers might consult their insurance companies about dangerous leisure activities and interrogate employees as to whether they engage in risky sports, ride motorcycles or like lone ocean sailing. Many would find this an odious development that diminished tolerance. There is not much of a step from arguing, out of paternalism, that smokers should not be employed (in anything but tobacco companies), to arguing that they should be prosecuted for their own good. We don't need this."

The Rest of the Story

Dr. Chapman is to be congratulated for having the courage as well as insight to question this discriminatory, unwarranted, and intrusive employment practice that serves no public health principle, despite the fact that his opinion goes against the grain of the tobacco control movement (as least in the United States - as I noted earlier, the British anti-smoking group ASH condemned this action).

It will be interesting to see if any of the U.S. anti-smoking groups or advocates will follow the lead of their British (and now Australian) counterparts.

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