Can Smokers Be Banned From Government Jobs?

Or is refusing to hire people based on off-duty behavior akin to lifestyle discrimination?

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If you are a smoker, you may want to rethink that plan to get a job with the city of Fort Worth, Texas. There are already private employers, including many medical centers, with policies against hiring workers who smoke. But Fort Worth may be about to become the first American city to say categorically that it will not hire anyone who smokes — on or off the job.

The proposal has set off a heated debate in Fort Worth. Supporters argue that in a time of tight budgets it would save on health insurance costs while also sending a message about the importance of healthy living. Critics say the proposed ban is unfair to job seekers who are addicted to nicotine — and that the city could lose out on hiring the best people. What Fort Worth is debating is “lifestyle discrimination,” refusing to hire — or refusing to promote, or firing — people based on off-duty behavior.

There has lifestyle discrimination as long as there have been bosses. It was Henry Ford, however, who turned it into a science. He established a Sociological Department at Ford Motor Co. that investigated the private lives of workers to determine which should receive the full $5 daily wage that the company offered its best workers. To show that they deserved top pay, workers had to show that they were “sober, saving, steady, industrious” — and that they would not waste their money on “riotous living.”

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Ford was passing moral judgment on his workers, but today most employers are narrowly focused on dollars and cents. In some cases, they can point to hard evidence that people who engage in certain activities are more costly employees. Smokers are more likely to take sick days, according to a 2009 study by the Journal of Tobacco and Policy Research, and are likely to have higher medical bills, driving up the cost of employer medical insurance. People who engage in other risky hobbies — such as motorcycling or flying private planes — may raise the same concerns.

It is not hard to see what is offensive about classifying workers in this way. And if employers can discriminate against employees who smoke, why not ones who are overweight, or who have high cholesterol, or who live in high-crime neighborhoods? In the current economy, with jobs as scarce as they are, discrimination of this sort could coerce people into living their lives the way big business wants them to.

While Fort Worth considers adopting a no-smokers hiring policy, other employers already have such rules in place. Many hospitals and medical centers, including the Cleveland Clinic, now engage in what they call “tobacco-free hiring.” Even less health-focused work sites, such as the Hollywood Casino in Toledo, Ohio, have adopted no-smoker hiring policies.

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At the same time, states have been pushing back against lifestyle discrimination. At least 30 have laws prohibiting it in one form or another. Some, such as Illinois and Minnesota, cover employees who use “lawful products,” protection aimed in large part at smokers. Others, including New York and California, prohibit discriminating against workers based on legal off-hours activity.

Lifestyle discrimination is tricky because — unlike racial or religious discrimination — there are a few instances in which a decent case can be made for it. Some off-duty conduct really does impact workplace performance. The head of an organization that counsels minority youth would rightly be disturbed to learn that one of his counselors spends his weekends attending white supremacy rallies. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union might want to take action if its new executive director was spotted drinking up a storm at bars all over town.

In cases like Fort Worth’s proposed ban on hiring smokers, though, the employer’s need for the policy is minimal — it is just about saving a little money — and the impact on job applicants would be substantial. In the Fort Worth debate, one of the most passionate voices belongs to Rev. Fritz Ritsch, the Pastor of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. He wrote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the issue reminded him of his father having to leave a college he had taught for 20 years because it could not afford to insure his mentally ill mother. Fort Worth smokers could soon be in a similar position. “It’s morally troubling,” Rev. Ritsch declared, “that a city government might hire based on a person’s health risks to save money.”

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