Tuesday, June 24, 2008

IN MY VIEW: Action on Smoking and Health's Reasoning in Support of Smoker-Free Workplaces Destroys Argument for Restaurant Smoking Bans

In a press release defending its position that employers should consider firing smokers and refusing to hire smokers, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) argued that allowing employers to discriminate against smokers in employment is acceptable because nobody has the right to any particular job and that employees who want a job must accept the conditions of employment.

According to the press release: "Smoking, whether on or off the job, causes the same ballooning of health care costs, disability payments, days of sick leave, and other costs to the employer. Nobody has the right to any particular job. Under our free enterprise system, employers -- rather than bureaucrats -- determine the conditions of employment, and employees who want a job must accept the conditions. The only major exception is that basing decisions on factors like race, national origin, gender, disability, etc. are prohibited since these are fixed conditions and don't adversely affect the employer. Smoking is an activity rather than an immutable condition, and each smoking worker seriously affects the employer's bottom line."

Action on Smoking and Health's executive director - Attorney John Banzhaf - appeared on a Fox Morning News show and promoted the idea of employers firing their smoking workers. The press release was issued to promote Banzhaf's appearance and remarks on the show.

The Rest of the Story

If one accepts ASH's argument that employers determine the conditions of employment, that employees who want a job must accept the conditions, that the only major exception is discrimination on the basis of race, gender, etc., and that nobody has a right to any particular job, then it becomes difficult to argue the need for restaurant smoking bans.

Why should the government intervene to ban smoking in all restaurants if the conditions of employment are up to the employer, who must accept those conditions? If people do not have a right to hold any particular job, then why can't they just find a new job if they don't like their working conditions, such as smoking in their working environments?

Because ASH has gone to such an extent to defend its promotion of smoker-free workplace policies, it seems to me that it has just crafted an argument against restaurant smoking bans, thus shooting itself in its own foot (since ASH is a major proponent of workplace smoking bans).

Of course I still support workplace smoking bans because I don't accept ASH's argument that employees must accept the conditions of their employment. I do not believe that workers can or should have to simply find another job if they do not want to be exposed to an easily preventable occupational health hazard at their work site.

But the point here is not whether restaurant smoking bans are justified, but instead, just how ridiculous ASH's argument is in light of its own support for workplace smoking bans. This story reveals how deep ASH is digging to defend its promotion of a policy that just doesn't mesh with its overall approach to tobacco control. It is inconsistent to argue that employers can and should set the conditions of employment - including not hiring smokers - but that the employers cannot determine the smoking conditions in their own establishments.

Anti-smoking groups need to re-examine the inconsistency in their arguments in support of smoker-free workplace policies and they need to square their position on this issue with their position on smoke-free workplace policies. And the only way to do this is either to drop their support of the latter or to drop their support of the former. I obviously think that dropping their support of smoker-free workplace policies is the appropriate thing to do.

ASH apparently supports not only policies by which employers fire their smoking employees, but also policies by which employers fire employees whose spouses smoke. That is completely absurd. It is going way too far and it represents an undue invasion of employee privacy.

Someone needs to stop ASH before its fanaticism actually starts to influence policy. The only one who could do it is another group within the tobacco control movement. However, I doubt any group - even one which opposes the extreme policies being promoted by ASH - will be willing to criticize a fellow tobacco control group. As I've learned, that's just not allowed.

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