How employers handle smoking in the workforce varies, especially since at least 30 states have passed laws protecting smokers who smoke on their own time from being barred from employment.
In Michigan, where it is illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, marital status, height, weight and age, Kalamazoo Valley Community College won’t hire applicants who use tobacco products. The policy has been in place for several years. Employees who lie and are later found to smoke can be fired, according to the college’s Web site.
Union Pacific Corp. is based in Omaha, Nebraska, where there is no law protecting smokers from discrimination. For the past two years the company has had a policy of barring smokers from employment. Union Pacific doesn’t tell applicants about the policy before asking about their smoking habits.
“We don’t want smokers to say, ‘No, we don’t smoke,’ ” spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell says. “So I don’t think it’s spelled out that plainly.”
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in Tacoma, Washington, puts its approach in writing. Applicants sign an affidavit acknowledging that American employers spend an additional $753 per year in medical costs on smokers and that an additional $68 billion in medical care is spent each year in the U.S. on tobacco deaths. The one-page affidavit adds that smokers miss an average of two or more workdays per year than nonsmokers and cost employers $47 billion in lost productivity. Signing the affidavit is a prerequisite for employment, as is being tobacco-free 24 hours a day.
While smokers have taken on a pariah-like status in the workplace, there are some employers for whom smoking remains an inalienable right. Herb Kelleher, co-founder and executive chairman of Southwest Airlines, is a smoker. After a recent luncheon in New York, he said companies that exclude people based on their personal habits—not their contribution to the company—are misguided.
“What a bunch of bullshit,” he said, a glass of whiskey in his hand. “That should be illegal.”
Punishing smokers is not enough to reduce the impact of smoking on health care costs. Employers should provide programs helping promote healthy living, says Michele Dodds, vice president of health and wellness at Chicago-based ComPsych.
“You have to make wellness part of the culture, and that means more than just not hiring smokers,” she says. “Wellness is about improving health, [and] smoking is not the only risk factor.”
While a major contributor to chronic illness, smoking is less prevalent among the adult population than obesity.
Twenty-three percent of the adult population in America smokes, while 65 percent is obese or overweight. By 2012, three of four adults are expected to be overweight or obese. It’s unlikely that companies would extend their ban on not hiring smokers to those who are overweight.
“You’d have a difficult time staffing,” Dodds says, “if you said, ‘We’re not going to hire someone who is overweight or obese.’ ”