Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New England Journal of Medicine Article Questions Ethics of Refusing to Hire Smokers

A perspective article published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine argues that it is unethical for companies to refuse to hire smokers.

(See: Schmidt H, Voigt K, Emanuel EJ. The ethics of not hiring smokers. New England Journal of Medicine, April 11, 2013; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1301951.)

The authors argue as follows: "Many health care organizations, such as the Cleveland Clinic and Baylor Health Care System, and some large non–health care employers, including Scotts Miracle-Gro, Union Pacific Railroad, and Alaska Airlines, now have a policy of not hiring smokers — a practice opposed by 65% of Americans, according to a 2012 poll by Harris International. We agree with those polled, believing that categorically refusing to hire smokers is unethical: it results in a failure to care for people, places an additional burden on already-disadvantaged populations, and preempts interventions that more effectively promote smoking cessation." ...

"it seems paradoxical for health care organizations that exist to care for the sick to refuse to employ smokers. Many patients are treated for illnesses to which their behavior has contributed, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure, diabetes, and infections spread through unprotected sex or other voluntary activities. It is callous — and contradictory — for health care institutions devoted to caring for patients regardless of the causes of their illness to refuse to employ smokers. Just as they should treat people regardless of their degree of responsibility for their own ill health, they should not discriminate against qualified job candidates on the basis of health-related behavior. The broader claim that it is fair to exclude smokers because they are responsible for raising health care costs is too simplistic. It ignores the fact that smoking is addictive and therefore not completely voluntary." ...

"all other diseases — and many healthful behaviors — also result in additional health care costs. ... People who engage in risky sports may have accidents or experience trauma routinely and burden coworkers with additional costs. Having babies increases premiums for fellow employees who have none. Many of these costs result from seemingly innocent, everyday lifestyle choices; some choices, such as those regarding diet and exercise, may affect cancer incidence as well as rates of diabetes and heart disease. We as a society have rejected the notion that individuals should be fully responsible for their own health care costs."

The article concludes as follows: "We believe that employers should consider more constructive approaches than punishing smokers. In hiring decisions, they should focus on whether candidates meet the job requirements; then they should provide genuine support to employees who wish to quit smoking. And health care organizations in particular should show compassion for their workers. This approach may even be a win–win economic solution, since employees who feel supported will probably be more productive than will those who live in fear of penalties."

The Rest of the Story

This article is a welcome addition to the public health literature. It makes a number of points which I have emphasized here at The Rest of the Story over the past several years. I applaud the authors for being willing to express this viewpoint and the Journal for highlighting the ethical aspects of this issue.

No comments: