Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Anti-Smoking Group Responds to Washington Post Op-Ed Condemning WHO's Discrimination Against Smokers

In what appears to be the first public response of a U.S. anti-smoking group to the World Health Organization's (WHO) decision to refuse to hire anyone who smokes, Washington D.C.-based Action on Smoking and Health has come out in favor of the WHO's action.

In a letter to the editor in response to Professor Leonard Glantz's op-ed published in the Washington Post, Action on Smoking and Health's (ASH) executive director argues as follows:

"If ... the World Health Organization is a bigot because it declines to hire smokers, then logically the Humane Society would be bigoted if it refused to hire hunters, the National Organization for Women would be bigoted if it declined to hire strip-club aficionados, and The Post would have to hire reporters who participate in political rallies. Under our free enterprise system, we interfere with hiring decisions when we base them upon immutable characteristics such as race and gender and where they have no impact on an employer. But smoking is an activity that can impose huge unnecessary costs for health care, disability, etc., and damage the image of any health-related organization that employs smokers -- which is why so many are declining to do so."

The Rest of the Story

ASH's argument fails because in each of the examples it provides, the group in question represents an inherent and direct conflict with the mission of the employer and could be viewed as directly impairing job performance for this reason.

A hunter, by definition, kills animals for sport and thus represents a direct conflict with the Humane Society's mission, a conflict that can be viewed as directly impairing the individual's ability to perform a job for the Humane Society. Being a strip club aficionado could easily be viewed as being inconsistent with the mission of the National Organization for women. And participating in political rallies could certainly be viewed as representing a conflict with the mission of a newspaper if the reporter is covering political issues and cannot be expected to report issues fairly because of his or her strong political bias.

But there is no way in which being a smoker directly conflicts with the mission of the World Health Organization or inherently and directly impairs an individual's ability to perform the functions of a job for that organization.

The World Health Organization is not an anti-smoking agency, although tobacco control is one of its many areas of activity. While it might not be unreasonable to suggest that being a smoker might not be consistent with a position with an anti-smoking unit within the organization, it is unreasonable to suggest that being a smoker represents an inherent and direct conflict with any other aspect of public health practice.

The second aspect of ASH's argument is flawed as well. It is simply not the case that there are no societal interests in intervening in hiring policies only when immutable characteristics or those which have no impact on an employer are involved.

Take, for example, the mutable characteristic of being fat. There is no question that the overwhelming majority of overweight individuals have the ability to lose a great deal of weight if they really want to. And there is also no question that in a way similar to hiring smoking employees, hiring fat employees also imposes "huge unnecessary costs for health care, disability, etc."

However, I think many people would agree that it would be wrong for companies to refuse to hire fat people. If many large companies started asking for lower abdominal measurements on their employment applications and threw out all applications of fat persons, I would bet that there would be a pretty broad public uproar about such a policy.

The final ASH argument is not only flawed, but it is a severely dangerous one. The argument is that it is appropriate for WHO not to hire smokers because it may damage the image of the organization to have smokers working for it.

The argument is flawed, first of all, because the behavior in question is a private one that takes place off-the-job. So the image of the organization is not inherently affected by hiring smokers. In fact, it is entirely plausible that no one would ever know whether a given employee was a smoker or not. Remember - the policy is not one that prohibits smoking while on-the-job; it prohibits all smoking, including off-the-job smoking, by employees. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the image of the company; it is not, in fact, an observable characteristic of the workforce on the job.

But the argument is a dangerous one because it suggests that whatever social norms exist regarding groups that are stigmatized or viewed as being social outcasts or pariahs will be institutionalized through employment policies.

If society decided that people who wear glasses are inferior and having employees who wear glasses might therefore hurt a company's image, then it would be perfectly acceptable, under this argument, to refuse to hire anyone who wears glasses. This is certainly mutable, as persons could simply wear contact lenses and it certainly doesn't directly impair job performance.

It is probably not too much of a stretch that under ASH's reasoning, employers may someday decide that they don't want to have fat people, people with young children, people with bad body odor, people who they view as ugly, or people who have certain political leanings working for them because it could hurt the image of the company (and I'm referring to situations where these characteristics do not directly affect job performance or conflict with the mission of a company).

I previously argued that 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 discriminatory employment policies forward. And so I think we bear the responsibility of putting an end to it.

But this is a step in the wrong direction. Previously, I pointed out that 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 now, we have a major U.S. anti-smoking organization that is directly supporting the policy.

I'm sorry, but I think employment discrimination is simply wrong, and it's not something that we should be supporting even if the discrimination is against people who are engaging in a behavior that we as tobacco control professionals are committed to countering in our work and our careers.

Countering smoking in an unethical way cannot be justified based on the desired end result of encouraging smokers to quit. We cannot allow ourselves into the trap of believing that the ends justify the means.

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