Smokers need not apply: Fairness of no-nicotine hiring policies questioned

Blake Farmer, Nashville Public Radio on

Published in Business News

When U-Haul recently announced it will no longer hire people who use nicotine in any form in the 21 states where such hiring policies are legal, the Phoenix-based moving company joined a cadre of companies with nicotine-free hiring policies.

U-Haul's announcement is receiving outsize attention because nicotine-free hiring policies are more common at high-profile hospitals such as Cleveland Clinic that are especially protective of their healthy image.

Alaska Airlines has one of the oldest nicotine-free hiring policies, going back to 1985. But at the time, a big part of the stated reasoning was that the industry isn't conducive to taking smoke breaks.

Now, some employers are making the policy change simply citing health concerns or health care costs -- even the city of Dayton, Ohio, has joined the movement.

But the policies are raising concern around labor and medical ethics. Harald Schmidt, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said targeting smokers disproportionately harms poor people.

"To me, this is more about fair equality of opportunity," he said.


Smoking is a behavior, so Schmidt doesn't equate it with discriminating on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation. But he notes that roughly half of unemployed people smoke. And quitting is hard, because nicotine is highly addictive.

"You're basically posing a double whammy on them," Schmidt said. "It's very hard for them to get work, and it's even harder for people who are already in a vulnerable situation."

Karen Buesing of the law firm Akerman represents employers and works with them on smoking policies. She said employers are looking out for the health of their employees.

Employers do have some concern about productivity and absenteeism, she said. But it's more about the risks of cancer and heart and lung disease.


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