Friday, August 04, 2006

Snohomish County Health Department Considering Not Hiring Smokers to Improve Public Image

In an effort to improve its "public image," the health department of the County of Snohomish (Washington) is considering a new policy that would preclude anyone who smokes or uses smokeless tobacco from being considered for employment by the city.

According to the article in the Seattle Times: "Citing a public image to protect, the Snohomish Health District is considering a no-tobacco hiring policy. The policy, which is in effect at several other health organizations, would protect the jobs of district employees who already smoke or use other tobacco products, but it would preclude the hiring of tobacco users for new or open positions. Staff members last week presented the district Board of Health's policy committee with a host of reasons such a move makes sense, including the public image of an agency that promotes healthy choices. The district operates a program that encourages people to quit using tobacco and discourages youths from starting. The policy committee unanimously sent the proposal to the full board, which will consider the measure Aug. 15."

The Rest of the Story

I completely agree with the advocates of this policy: the no-tobacco hiring policy will change the public image of the Snohomish Health District. And it should.

It should change its image from one of a professional and reputable public health agency to one of a self-righteous, intolerant, intrusive, and disrespectful organization that institutionalizes discrimination against a group of law-abiding citizens.

I think the most telling aspect of this story is expressed by this excerpt from the newspaper article: "Board member Jim Flower, who lives with a smoker who has tried to quit several times, said he was concerned at first about infringing on personal rights. 'But the money figures spoke to me,' he said."

In other words, the concern about saving money apparently trumps the protection of individual rights. What it really comes down is that the Board is basically saying: "Screw you and your rights; we want to save some money."

The fallacy in the Board's argument, of course, is that if it really wanted to save money, it would certainly want to institute a policy of not hiring fat people. There is no question that obesity causes increased health care costs and lost work time, as well as increased time to recover from illnesses and injuries.

The Board also would want to not hire people who do not exercise or eat nutritiously. And people with infants and young children at home, who are sick and miss work from infectious diseases much more often than those who don't have young children.

Singling out smokers for discrimination appears to me to be a sign of intolerance and probably some hatred, mixed in with a smattering of bigotry.

The other fallacy, of course, is that smoking off-the-job directly impairs job performance of an individual. I am aware of no evidence that this is the case. All of the evidence being used by the Board to support the policy appears to be population-based studies which find that on the whole, smokers cost more than nonsmokers. But there is no evidence that on an individual basis, a person's smoking directly impairs her job performance.

Thus, the policy is little other than outright discrimination.

But perhaps most disturbing is the degree to which the Health Board appears willing to intrude into the privacy of employees' homes. I don't want my employer snooping around my house to see what I do in my own home on my own time. If they suspect me of illegal behavior and they want to pry on me, that's one thing. But if it's lawful behavior that's not in any way unprofessional, then they have no business controlling what I do in my home. And they have no business making employment decisions based on it.

This is what scares me most, because it suggests that anti-smoking groups have completely lost a sense of perspective. The only thing that matters is whether people smoke or not and how much we pay for smoking-related costs. We need to reduce smoking and these smoking-related costs at all cost. No matter how intrusive of our privacy, autonomy, or rights. There's nothing to stop us. Nothing to get in the way of our agenda.

The anti-smoking movement does not appear to understand or respect that what people do in their homes is their own business, as long as it is lawful and does not directly impair their job ability.

Even if the movement didn't respect the privacy and autonomy of individuals, it would still be more respectable in my eyes if it wanted to impose its intrusion systematically and consistently. So if these groups were calling on a workforce of non-smoking, physically active, thin (but not too thin), normocholesterolemic, non-hypertensive, non-hyperglycemic, and sexually non-promiscuous individuals, then I might believe that this is all motivated by a true concern for health care costs.

But the singling out of one particular risk factor suggests that there is something deeper going on, something beneath the surface. And I think what's underlying it is a desire to punish smokers.

Washington State needs a law to prevent this type of intrusion and discrimination. And it needs it now. As much as I hate to support the idea of government intervention to control this problem and protect people's privacy and rights, I don't see that the anti-smoking movement is going to back down. After months of writing about this problem and bringing it to the movement's attention, there still is not another U.S. group or advocate out there who has publicly spoken out against this form of discrimination. Thus, there ought to be a law.

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