Monday, February 06, 2006

Melbourne (Florida) Considering Not Hiring Smokers

The city of Melbourne (Florida) is considering adding its name to the growing list of employers who refuse to hire smokers. According to a proposal the City Council is now considering: "Applicants would be asked about tobacco use during pre-employment screening -- and smokers would get dropped from further consideration."

The purpose of the policy is to prevent nonsmoking employees from having to offset the health care costs of smoking employees.

According to the City Manager: "I think it's a good path to explore, and it makes a lot of sense. It is very odd that -- 50 years after the surgeon general said, 'smoking's bad, don't do this, smoking's bad, it's not healthy,' -- that we're still having that conversation."

The Rest of the Story

Interestingly, another Florida city - North Miami - instituted a similar policy in 1990. However, after 13 years of experience with the policy, the city dropped it because officials realized they were having trouble recruiting enough qualified applicants and were turning some otherwise outstanding applicants away: "'We were having difficulty recruiting qualified police officers, and we felt this policy may have prevented some good candidates from applying,' said Rebecca Jones, North Miami director of personnel administration."

And that is precisely why Melbourne's proposed policy is wrong. Because it judges potential applicants based not on their individual qualifications for the job, but on the group to which they belong, it represents employment discrimination.

While it may be true that on a statistical basis, smokers cost an employer more than nonsmokers, on an individual basis this is most certainly not true. The healthiest smoker clearly is going to cost less than the least healthy nonsmoker.

For example, a young (let's say 24-year-old) smoker with normal blood pressure, low cholesterol, a weight of 145 pounds, and clean coronary arteries is going to cost an employer less than a 55 year-old nonsmoker who has a resting blood pressure of 160/100, a cholesterol of 285, a weight of 285 pounds, and two-vessel coronary artery disease due to 45 years of eating too many french fries and tater tots (I can't avoid bringing in those tater tots).

If you're going to try to establish a policy of not making employees pay for the increased health care costs of their fellow employees, then it is irrational to consider only one factor in health. And in fact, among young people, smoking is probably far less of an important consideration in health care costs and lost work days then other factors, including whether or not the applicant has young children at home.

In addition, weight (or body mass index) is a huge determinant of health status and health care costs. Obese employees are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized in a given year than non-obese employees. Eliminating smoking applicants from job consideration while retaining obese applicants seems nonsensical.

This is precisely why employment discrimination is so inappropriate. It precludes individuals from being judged on their individual qualifications, forcing them instead to be judged on group membership.

And if one agrees with the Melbourne City Manager that after 50 years of knowing that smoking is bad for health, it's odd that we're still having this conversation about hiring smokers, then would not one also have to agree that after more than 50 years of knowing that obesity is bad for health, it's odd that we're still having a conversation about hiring obese people?

Unfortunately, this disturbing trend is going to continue until anti-smoking groups speak out against the practice. And it doesn't look like that's going to happen any time soon.

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