Monday, February 02, 2009

IN MY VIEW: Anti-Smoking Groups and Advocates That Support Smoker-Free Workplace Policies Have Destroyed the Argument for Smoke-Free Restaurants/Bars

Today, I want to discuss a very important implication of the tobacco control movement's push to promote smoker-free employment policies -- those by which employers either refuse to hire smokers, fire existing smoking employees, or both.

The basic reasoning behind the tobacco control movement's support for these policies is that it is appropriate for employers to discriminate against a class of people in hiring and firing decisions, so long as there is a rationale for such a decision (such as saving health care costs, being consistent with an organization's philosophy, or setting a certain example for the public) and the group being discriminated against is not a protected class (such as women, minorities, or members of a certain religion).

Anti-smoking groups which support employment discrimination against smokers have no choice but to acknowledge that it is appropriate for employers to exclude certain groups from employment, so long as it is allowed by law.

As I have pointed out, the very same reasoning being used by anti-smoking groups to justify the exclusion of smokers from employment could also be used to justify the exclusion of overweight or obese individuals from employment.

But it was recently pointed out to me that the very same reasoning could also be used to justify an employer's decision to hire only smokers. Unfortunately, for anti-smoking groups that support smoker-free workplaces, there is no choice but to also accept the employer's right to designate his workplace as nonsmoker-free. In other words, if it is acceptable for an employer to decide to only hire nonsmokers, then it must also be acceptable for an employer to decide only to hire smokers. If you can require that someone doesn't smoke as a condition of employment, then you can most certainly require that someone does smoke as a condition of employment.

If you can inquire about smoking on a job application and throw out the stack of applicants who report that they smoke, then can't an employer also decide to throw out the stack of applicants who do smoke?

To be sure, the decision to hire only smokers is not necessarily a frivolous one. If you are a bar or restaurant owner and you allow smoking in your establishment, then there is actually a health justification for hiring only smokers: you are protecting nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke.

There may also be a business rationale for hiring only smokers: an employer may wish to cater the business entirely towards smokers. These are, after all, hospitality establishments.

Now, if it is acceptable for an establishment to hire only smokers, then here is the critical implication: there would be nothing wrong with a policy that bans smoking in bars and restaurants, but allows an exemption for establishments which have decided to hire only smokers.

Nonsmoking bar and restaurant patrons are certainly free to choose to frequent only nonsmoking establishments. And if the town, city, or state has enacted a smoke-free law, then there will be plenty of such establishments to choose from.

As far as nonsmoking workers are concerned, there are none at the exempted bars and restaurants, so allowing smoking in these establishments is not a concern.

As far as smoking workers are concerned, no one has put forward the argument that they need to be protected from secondhand smoke, because they are active smokers and have made the decision to expose themselves to high levels of the constituents in tobacco smoke.

So then, for those who support the appropriateness of an employer discriminating legally, there's no problem with allowing an exemption from smoking bans for bars and restaurants that cater specifically to smokers and hire only smokers as employees.

Similarly, there is no justification - for those who support employment discrimination against smokers - for laws that prohibit smoking in hookah or cigar bars. A provision could easily be inserted into the law stating that such nonsmoking policies only hold if a nonsmoker is employed at the establishment. Most of these establishments already hire only smokers, so there should be no opposition to such policies among anti-smoking advocates who also support smoker-free hiring policies.

I've thought very hard about this conundrum, and I don't see any way out. If we accept the reasoning of many anti-smoking groups and advocates and acknowledge that it is appropriate for employers to hire only nonsmokers, then we have destroyed the argument that complete smoking bans are necessary. Based on such reasoning, it would be perfectly acceptable to allow smoking in bars and restaurants whose owners do not consider job applications from nonsmokers.

Let me make it clear that I can still argue for the need for bar and restaurant smoking bans because I don't believe it is appropriate for an employer to discriminate based on a factor that is not directly related to a bona fide job qualification. I don't believe that the safety of a workplace should depend upon requiring the employer to discriminate against 75-80% of the population. In my book, that is completely unacceptable. But if one truly believes it is appropriate for employers to make any decisions they want (short of illegal discrimination) about who to hire, then there is no problem with allowing limited exceptions for smoking in bars and restaurants which cater specifically to smokers and only hire smoking employees.

The rest of the story is that in their zealousness to punish smokers by discriminating against them in employment, anti-smoking groups and advocates have, by their own reasoning, destroyed their own justification for complete restaurant and bar smoking bans.

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