Tuesday, March 30, 2010

St. Luke's Hospital in Allentown: Smokers Not Wanted in Health Care Field, Need Not Apply

St. Luke's Hospital and Health Network announced Monday that it will no longer consider job applications from smokers, or from anyone who uses nicotine. Prospective employees will be screened for nicotine and if they test positive, their applications will be thrown in the garbage, according to the new policy which goes into effect on May 1. Existing employees will not be affected.

A local anti-smoking group expressed approval of the new policy: "Alice Dalla Palu, executive director of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Valley, said policies against hiring smokers may be something employers should look at, especially as a way to save on health-care costs. ''It's something to consider,'' she said."

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St. Luke's is essentially making the statement that smokers should not be working in the health care field. I wonder how St. Luke's feels about overweight people working in the health care field. Is that acceptable? After all, people who are obese run up much higher medical bills than people who are of normal weight. Is St. Luke's also going to weigh potential employees and throw out the applications of anyone whose body mass index is at an unhealthy level?

If it's appropriate to refuse to hire smokers in order to reduce health care costs, then it is also appropriate to refuse to hire overweight people to reduce health care costs.

But how would most people view a hospital system that put prospective employees on a scale prior to hiring them? I think most of us would view such an employer with great scorn. We would criticize the employer for discriminating against overweight individuals. We would be concerned about what would happen if all employers acted in a similar manner. Overweight people would have a hard time finding jobs. It seems quite unfair to discriminate against people because of lifestyle choices they have made which have no direct bearing on their job qualifications.

The same is true of employment discrimination against smokers. It is unfair and inappropriate. Instead of applauding such actions, anti-smoking groups should speak out against this form of employment discrimination.

The appropriate way to reduce health care costs related to smoking is to offer workplace wellness programs, including smoking cessation programs and benefits. Such programs have been shown to be cost-effective. Refusing to hire people with unhealthy behaviors is not an appropriate public health approach to the problem.

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