Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Trouble With Tobacco-Free Hiring Policies

[content/trigger warning: This post contains a discussion about fat shaming]

I used to smoke, But I'm Not Self-Righteous About Being a Non-Smoker (tm). (Seriously, I loved to smoke. Loved it. So I totally get why some people can't or won't quit.)

I quit about 6 years ago.

You'll notice I say "about" because, for me, quitting was a gradual process. One day, I ran out of cigarettes and just didn't buy more. I stopped taking smoke breaks. And, even though I wanted to smoke, I began using gum, toothpicks, coffee, tea, exercise, water, and fun energy drinks to fill in the gaps of the time I used to spend smoking.

Naturally, I became that annoying person who borrows cigarettes because she "only smokes when she drinks." And then one day, I stopped doing that too. Now, I'm at the stage where smoking doesn't even sound appealing to me anymore. I tried a cigarette about a year ago at a party and it tasted/felt like what I imagine it must taste/feel like to people who have never smoked. Like smoke (it taste/feels different and better to many smokers, LOL). I think, for me, I had to make quitting not be a Big Thing that I, like, talked about and shared with everyone. It let me live in denial for a little while about the fact that I was quitting something I really liked to do.

So, with that disclaimer noted, I recently came across this article, about how some workplaces are refusing to hire smokers.

The reasoning is that "such tobacco-free hiring policies, [are] designed to promote health and reduce insurance premiums." Within the article, the following statistics are noted:

"Each year, smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke causes 443,000 premature deaths and costs the nation $193 billion in health bills and lost productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.....The bottom line will benefit because health care costs for tobacco users are $3,000 to $4,000 more each year than for non-smokers, says Bon Secours' Cindy Stutts."

While I understand employers' concerns about "the bottom line," two issues stand out to me with respect to this hiring policy.

One, I wonder if it will have a disparate impact on certain groups. While I do not believe smokers are, or should be, a "protected class" as is understood in the US legal system, smoking does correlate with socioeconomic status, education level, and sexual orientation*.

For instance, according to the CDC's statistics, 49% of those with a GED reported being smokers, compared to 5% of respondents with a graduate degree. 31% of those living below the poverty line reported being smokers, compared to 19% living above the poverty line. In addition, a (somewhat dated) 2001 study (cited in
PDF) found that 46% of gay men and 48% of lesbians smoked, a rate double that of their heterosexual counterparts (data on bisexuals was not included).

A blanket policy against hiring smokers is going to disproportionately impact these groups. The assumption seems to be that such a policy will get people to quit smoking, but an argument could also be made that a policy that doesn't take into account why some people tend to smoke more than others might not be an effective anti-smoking program. It might just end up turning many smokers into people who are good at hiding their smoking, while, say, tobacco companies continue to develop
charmingly-named projects
aimed at recruiting new groups of undesirables smokers.

My second issue is that if we look at the reasons for the policy in light of the dominant narratives regarding obesity, a policy against hiring fat people could also be developed. No one, to my knowledge, is proposing such a ban (erm... right?), but I think we have reason to be wary of a parallel reasoning process being applied to fat people.


The employers' argument is that smokers choose to smoke, smoking has high health and economic costs, therefore, the hiring ban is acceptable. If people want to be hired all they have to do is make different life choices.

Headlines consistently inform us that Obesity Is Overtaking Smoking As the Leading Cause of Preventable Death in the US. The US Surgeon General reports that 300,000 premature deaths per year are attributable to obesity, while the CDC notes that the health costs of obesity are a "staggering" $147 billion dollars per year.

A quote in the smoking article notes that smokers are easy targets, but (as someone who is, or tries to be, a fat acceptance ally), it also seems like fat people are easy targets too. The two words "smoking and obesity" are practically a conjoined phrase in conversations about "preventable" deaths.

Many fat people believe (and I would agree) that being fat and being happy is a radical act given the degree to which fatness and fat people are shamed and demonized. Many non-fat people view being fat similar to how they view smoking, as a bad life choice and an individual you-deserve-what-you-get moral failing, rather than as the result of more systemic, collective issues.

So, to circle back to a point I made earlier, I don't expect policies that only penalize people who fall into certain categories and do not address the reasons why people fall into those categories to be effective public health measures. When employer honchos say things like, "We're not denying smokers their right to tobacco products. We're just choosing not to hire them," I think a lot of people are going to hear:

"We're not denying people disproportionately targeted by tobacco companies the right to their tobacco products, we're just choosing not to hire them"


"We're not denying people who live in food deserts the right to eat their cheap, high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden food, we're just choosing not to hire them."

or, (my personal fave):

"We're not denying people who get fat partly because they work in front of a computer all day the right to work in front of a computer all- oh wait... yes we are. Whoooooops!"

[*Note: Although, the CDC also reports similar smoking prevalence levels among Blacks, Native Americans, and Whites (with lower prevalence levels among Asian-Americans and Hispanics), it also deserves highlighting that tobacco companies have aggressively and disproportionately marketed certain tobacco products to African-Americans and that African-Americans disproportianately suffer from tobacco-related disease.]

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