Wednesday, January 18, 2006

U.S. Anti-Smoking Groups Quiet on Workplace Discrimination Against Smokers

So far as I can tell, there is not a single U.S. anti-smoking group that has come out against the World Health Organization's policy of denying smokers a career in international public health (in other words, refusing to hire smokers), or against similar discriminatory policies by Weyco, Scotts Miracle-Gro, Crown Laboratories, and others.

Not a single anti-smoking group or advocate publicly came out against these policies in response to my challenge issued last week, and not a single group has publicly condemned these policies in any public statement of which I am aware.

This is in sharp contrast to our international counterparts. 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]." And the editor of the journal Tobacco Control, a professor at the University of Sydney's School of Public Health, also publicly questioned the WHO's policy.

But apparently, not so in the United States. Anti-smoking organizations appear to either:
  1. Support these discriminatory and intrusive practices;
  2. Not care one way or the other;
  3. Oppose the practices but not care enough to speak out against them; or
  4. Oppose the practices but be afraid to speak out.
It would be interesting to know which of the above possibilities, or what combination of them, characterizes the unwillingness of U.S. anti-smoking groups to publicly condemn what I see as blatantly discriminatory and unduly intrusive policies, and what my colleague, Boston University School of Public Health Professor Leonard Glantz, has described as bigotry.

If anti-smoking organizations actually support these policies, then I think that's shameful because they represent unwarranted employment discrimination, inappropriate intrusion into the privacy of individuals in their own home, and threaten to turn smokers into second class citizens who are unable to obtain gainful employment to support themselves and their families. They also discriminate against a population that is already less well-off (in terms of socioeconomic status) and threaten to further class differences between smokers and nonsmokers.

If anti-smoking organizations don't care one way or the other, then I think that's even more shameful because this is an issue that we should certainly care about.

If anti-smoking organizations oppose these policies but don't care enough to speak out, then I think that's even more shameful because it is our job as public health professionals to speak out against policies that we find wrong.

And if anti-smoking organizations oppose these policies but are afraid to speak out publicly, then I think that's shameful because it reveals the McCarthyism-like air within the tobacco control movement and the poisonous atmosphere in which we are engaging in the public health practice of tobacco control.

The Rest of the Story

For me, I have to admit that this is one of the darkest and saddest chapters in the history of the tobacco control movement in my lifetime.

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