Ten Miles Square


April 01, 2013 9:08 AM What Are People Inhaling When they Advocate Policies Not to Hire Smokers?

By Harold Pollack

I am an emphatic tobacco control advocate. My mother-in-law and my father-in-law both died horribly and young of lung cancer. I yield to no one in my desire to tax the hell out of cigarettes, require aggressive warning labels, the full list. I despise the tobacco industry, and would stop just-short of TP’ing Altria’s corporate headquarters.

I remain dumbfounded that distinguished medical professionals would countenance a policy of refusing to hire smokers. Of course, people shouldn’t smoke. I have no problem with any number of workplace smoking restrictions, particularly in medical settings.

Yet the proper goal of tobacco policy is embrace and help smokers, not to bully them or discriminate against them. Such employment policies are appallingly unfair and discriminatory. I also believe such policies are unethical, particularly when one considers the reality that tobacco use is increasingly concentrated among low-income and less-educated Americans whose economic and political influence is nowhere near what it used to be.

Mayor Bloomberg seems to have overstepped public opinion with his efforts to limit large serving-sizes of sugary drinks. Maybe so, but attacking the Big Gulps seems a much-less disturbing intrusion of the nanny state than a policy which would deny employment to otherwise-qualified smokers.

I’m not sure what people are smoking who advocate such discriminatory policies. They should smoke something else.

[Originally posted at The Reality-based Community]

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.


  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 01, 2013 1:39 PM:


    With all this talk about the high costs of unhealthy lifestyles" (smoking and obesity), methinks that therein lurks a convenient excuse for employers to reduce their end of health care costs. Maybe I'm cynical, but I just think that employers are going for the low-hanging fruit with regards to keeping a favorable bottom line. And it's natural for employers who offer group insurance to want to minimize the number of high-risk participants that are in their pool. But, by discriminating against and penalizing their (future) employees, they're taking a ham-handed route.

    If they were concerned about an unhealthy labor force, they'd be lobbying against the junk food industry (Bloomberg style, perhaps); they'd be supporting bike-pedestrian-friendly urban planning; they'd advocating for re-instating school physical education programs that have been decimated over the past decade or two; they'd be for expanding access to nutritional foods in communities that are deemed "food deserts"; and with regard to smoking, making sure that quitting is easier than starting. But employers aren't willing to wait for the generation or so that it would take for any of these holistic healthy living changes to kick in. Employers trying to reduce their costs ASAP! By purging anyone who might be deemed unhealthy--Smokers and Heavyweights need not apply!

    And the insurance industry would never get behind these kinds of holistic measures either. Their industry thrives on the unhealthy. Unhealthy is a very convenient excuse to raise the price on their products.

  • Scotius on April 02, 2013 5:40 PM:

    I agree. This is just the thin end of the wedge. Employers will start on a socially ostracized group such as smokers and then work their way to the overweight and eventually end up up coincidentally with a young, healthy realtively inexpensive work force.

  • phillygirl on April 03, 2013 12:59 AM:

    You're entirely right but missing the point. Until someone can demonstrate that smokers' deaths actually cost more than other people's deaths -- and I want data that's controlled for socioeconomic status -- I will be convinced that this crusade is a simple moralistic one. It's a great opportunity to discriminate against people because they're weak-willed, dirty, and resistant to current social mores. That's what everybody, especially our prissy public-health elite, likes to do. Condemning those we don't like to unemployment has nothing to do with actual economic or social costs. It has to do with baser impulses.