Wednesday, February 04, 2009

New Scientist Features Article on Employment Discrimination Against Smokers; Accompanying Editorial Says Anti-Smoking Movement Has Gone Too Far

An article in this week's issue of New Scientist based on Brian Houle and my paper in Tobacco Control highlights the issue of employment discrimination against smokers. An accompanying editorial argues that the anti-smoking movement has gone too far by promoting policies by which employers refuse to hire smokers.

According to the article: "Banning smoking in the office is one thing, but refusing to hire smokers may damage their health and exacerbate social inequalities. The World Health Organization stopped hiring smokers in 2005, while the US National Cancer Institute has suggested that the preferential hiring of non-smokers would help to discourage smoking. ... Now Brian Houle of the University of Washington in Seattle and Michael Siegel of Boston University, have called for a closer examination of its potential health impacts in this week's issue of Tobacco Control. They could not find any published evaluations of its effect on public health, but identify several ways in which the policy could be damaging. Smokers might be forced to quit their jobs rather than their habit, they say, which could leave US workers without health insurance. And by preventing smokers from finding work, the policy may also exacerbate social segregation, as smoking is more common among some ethnic minorities and low-income groups."

The editorial states: "The anti-smoking lobby has gone too far. Banning smoking in the workplace was a win-win move: smokers have another incentive to quit, and everyone else is spared their second-hand smoke. But some companies in the US are now refusing to hire anyone who smokes, even off duty. Organisations that cover their employees' health insurance, as many do, will make savings by hiring people less likely to contract smoking-related ailments. Others say the policy is simply an extension of their mission to foster healthy behaviour. By that logic, they should also refuse to employ those who enjoy a social drink, or who drive polluting cars. Employers have no business regulating people's behaviour unless it directly harms others at work. The decision whether or not to smoke at home is a personal matter."

The Rest of the Story

I'm delighted that New Scientist covered this story and decided to add an editorial. The conceptual slippery slope argument is compelling. The justification being used to support smoker-free employment policies also supports not hiring overweight individuals or those who have a poor diet or sedentary lifestyle.

Can you imagine the logical extension of this argument? Prospective employees could be given a detailed health behavior questionnaire, similar to that used in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey. This would thoroughly and systematically screen for any potential health risks that might increase the employer's health care costs, result in a less healthy workforce, or set a bad example to the public. Applicants who score below a pre-determined value on the survey would have their applications thrown in the garbage.

Employees could be re-surveyed annually and those whose scores have dropped below the employment threshold would be fired. This would ensure a healthy workforce, provide a strong incentive for employees to carry out healthy behaviors, set a great example for the public, and minimize a company's health care costs.

The irony, of course, is that such a system would be entirely supported by the precise reasoning being used to justify employment discrimination against smokers.

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