Monday, December 05, 2005

World Health Organization Will Not Hire Smokers

According to an Associated Press article Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) will no longer hire smokers.

According to the article: "Applicants are asked if they smoke or use other tobacco products, and if they answer 'yes,' the application process is terminated."

A WHO spokesperson described the reason behind the new employment policy as follows: "WHO has taken a very public lead in the fight against tobacco use. As a matter of principle, WHO does not want to recruit smokers."

Another WHO spokesperson made it clear that WHO's principled concern about the health of its employees was specific to smoking: "When asked whether WHO would soon stop hiring obese people or those drinking alcohol, spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said the agency was aware that its new rules 'may seem discriminatory or even politically incorrect' to some. But she stressed that WHO needs to align its own employment practices with its principles."

The Rest of the Story

Apparently, it is the principle of the World Health Organization that smokers are not entitled to have a career in public health, no matter how committed they may be to the cause, how qualified they may be for such a position, how much training, education, and experience they have in public health, or how dedicated they are to the effort to protect the public's health.

The astute question put forth by the reporter revealed, I think, that this policy is not about health at all. It is really about a distaste for smokers and an attempt to socially engineer changes in a specific health behavior by discriminating against and penalizing a population of law-abiding citizens.

The WHO's rationalization for discriminating against smokers in hiring could just as easily be made for a policy to refuse to hire obese people, people who eat a high-fat diet, people who don't exercise, or people who engage in unsafe sex. It is outright discrimination, and in addition, I think it is an unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of potential employees.

It's not like WHO is specifically an anti-smoking organization, where they might legitimately view hiring a smoker as being opposed to the mission of their organization (I don't agree with that view - I'm just pointing out that it isn't even the case here). WHO is a public health organization, and unless an individual is somehow opposed to the principle of improving the public's health, then I don't see how hiring them violates any "principle" of a public health agency.

Perhaps it is the principle of the WHO that smokers should become second class citizens who are not provided with an opportunity to pursue employment. How this policy advances any public health principle is beyond me.

To its credit, a British anti-smoking organization (ASH - Action on Smoking and Health) condemned the new policy: "We think this is rather foolish. We should not be persecuting people smoking but encouraging them to give up [smoking]."

I think the U.S. anti-smoking groups have a lot to learn from their British counterparts. When will they follow ASH-UK's lead and similarly condemn this discriminatory and intrusive policy?

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