Researchers Call Denying Employment to Smokers Counterproductive

More employers are hiring only nonsmokers, but even some tobacco-control experts say that employment discrimination against smokers is a bad idea, the Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 21.

In an editorial published in the February 2009 issue of the journal Tobacco Control, researchers questioned the use of smoker-free employment policies as a public-health intervention, citing the fear that widespread adoption of these policies could make smokers nearly unemployable.

Unintended consequences could include loss of health insurance and the cascading effect on the health of families, the researchers wrote, as well as the effect of discriminatory attitudes that could lead to the adoption of selective employment practices — like refusing to hire people who are overweight.

“People have thought about the positive benefits of these programs, such as the fact that they may reduce absenteeism and increase productivity,” said Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health. “But we don't think people have thought through the negative consequences. We're looking at this from a broader public-health perspective.”

While tobacco-control advocates are divided about the policies, Siegel said there is a reluctance to speak out against employment discrimination. “Tobacco-control practitioners have naturally become very frustrated that it's so difficult to get people to quit,” Siegel said. “The problem is that we can't let that frustration cloud our vision about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.”

About half of the states in the U.S. have legislation protecting against discrimination based on smoking status.

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