Bans and regulations of tobacco use in the United States have long raised questions regarding personal freedom and the overall public good. One debate that has gained increasing attention over the last several years is whether companies should be able to fire or not hire employees due to their personal smoking habits. This issue reexamines the legal ramifications, medical studies, and civil ethics that have all influenced tobacco regulation throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but tobacco regulation should not be the responsibility of companies and their HR departments.
This past January marked the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Surgeon General report on the negative health effects of smoking tobacco. The earliest city-wide smoking ban in the U.S. was instilled in Beverly Hills in 1987 and since then, 38 states have enacted some form of tobacco regulation. These laws, fought for actively year-by-year by several different organizations such as the American Lung Association, aim to curtail the amount of smokers in certain communities and reduce the ultimate exposure to non-smokers in public places such as restaurants, bars, and city parks.
In 2013, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published two reviews that question whether employers should be allowed to refrain from hiring individuals because of their personal smoking habits. According to the report, “twenty-nine U.S. states have passed legislation prohibiting employers from refusing to hire job candidates because they smoke, but 21 states have no such restrictions.”
One major ethical concern raised in the NEJM reports is that tobacco use is more prevalent in lower income groups and certain hiring restrictions might contribute to income equality. “Even though most members of lower socioeconomic groups do not use tobacco,” explains NEJM, “and even though anti-tobacco hiring policies are not intended to reduce jobs for these populations, they are likely to do so inadvertently, at least somewhat.”
The other review conducted by NEJM purports a similar idea about the unemployed: “policies against hiring smokers result in a ‘double whammy’ for many unemployed people, among whom smoking rates are nearly 45 percent (as compared to 28 percent among Americans with full-time employment).”
Many unemployed smokers may feel that, given their constrained resources and socioeconomic situation, they do not have the resources to overcome their addictions. Thus, providing unemployed smokers with jobs may give them the necessary means and motivation necessary to change their lifestyles and seek help with quitting.
After all, NEJM views smoker hiring policies as “one product of a growing recognition that changing behaviors is hard, that combating addiction is harder, and that behaviors that were once seen as exclusively private often have profound societal effects.” Employers, many of whom take on the medical insurance bills of their employees, want to save money in the long run by managing risk before it occurs.
NEJM estimates that “smokers, on average, cost employers several thousand dollars more each year than nonsmokers in health care expenses and lost productivity.” However, policies such as these might be comparable to a hypothetical policy refusing work to women because of their increased chances of breast cancer.
Furthermore, many studies have been conducted to test the effects of reward systems within companies to help employees quit smoking. A trial conducted by NEJM in order to gauge the effectiveness of companies’ rewards systems for quitting tobacco found that “even with an aggressive system of rewards, 91 percent of employees who wanted to quit could not.” This proves that if a smoker wanted to quit, they would have to find the drive within him or herself, not from a company that pays them, and especially not from a company that is willing to forego an asset due to a personal health choice.
In March of 2012, Harris Interactive joined with HealthDay to publish a poll that examined Americans’ views on government policies meant to benefit people’s overall health. One result found that over three quarters of the population believe that social initiatives (such as smoking bans and outlawing texting while driving) are effective. “But on the other hand, almost two-thirds (61 percent) worried that these same laws might be too coercive, impeding individual freedoms.”
When it came to hiring smokers, the Harris Interactive/HealthDay research found that “65 percent opposed [and] 34 percent strongly opposed employers not hiring smokers.” Throughout a large portion of the United States, tobacco smokers are protected from exclusive hiring because of their habits, but the issue is still a hot topic and will be for years to come.