What are people inhaling when they advocate policies not to hire smokers?

I’m just dumbfounded that distinguished medical professionals would support such a policy.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

33 thoughts on “What are people inhaling when they advocate policies not to hire smokers?”

  1. They probably are thinking that smokers are less productive, take more frequent breaks, are more likely to be out sick, and are therefore thinking it would be good business not to hire anyone in that class.

    It may well save money to do so, for the employer at least, but it would have the same status as a refusal to hire someone with a family history of alcoholism.

    1. A newspaper headline reprinted in “Anguished English”:


      I love “Anguished English”, but I try not to think too hard about whether all the hilarious but completely unsourced quotes in there are actually genuine.

    2. People making the efficiency argument are silly. I am a long-time smoker, now quitting. I am trying to replace the ritual with a walk around the block. Problem solving, for me, is facilitated by getting away from the office. I generally do my best intuitive guesses for a fix when I’m not staring at my monitor. Perhaps, if all you want out of a worker is units per hour, that might make sense. If you’re employing people to think about things, you need to accommodate the quirks that let them think successfully.

      1. Not as silly as you might think. It’s not efficiency as in working harder but as in being out for more sick days, being a drain on the company’s health plan and that sort of thing. There’s a lot of health and social effects of smoking with economic consequences. The real question is about what kind of a society we want to have and the extent to which we want to organize it on basically neo-liberal lines with health care being provided by employers and with society organized so that the best (and only acceptable) results are those resulting from the workings of free markets.

  2. I am not sure how effective it is though. If you are not a daily smoker, you just need to stop smoking for a week to pass a drug test without nicotine in your system…

    I guess that is the nature of the beast with drug-tests at hiring-if you can refrain from drugs for a week or even three days, you have a very high chance of passing a drug test clean for almost all drugs, except THC. It is kind of an irony of urine-based drug tests-they are only really effective at catching those who do the arguably least harmful drug…

  3. I’m from an era where smoking in the office was still a “right”, so I remember discussions of exactly this point on what seemed at the time be be entirely personal health and hygiene grounds. We (not management and not in charge of hiring, but still occasionally consulted) didn’t want to hire a smoker because — from experience — that meant a workplace that stank of stale cigarette smoke, getting smoke blown in one’s face during meetings, and generally feeling not-so-fresh around the smoking fellow employee.

    If the workplace is smoke-free, that’s another matter. Then it’s more about lingering traces of smoke, just as for other prospective employees it’s about the sequelae of not bathing or not brushing one’s teeth.

  4. I’m always skeptical when notions of health just happen to line up with ruling class lifestyle biases. I’m not old enough to remember when the William Howard Taft look was in medical vogue when calories were expensive. But now, calories are cheap, and we all know what body styles are in vogue. Is it just a coincidence that today’s “healthy” diet is expensive, in money, time, or both? Or that fitness has become a big deal just about the time that most low-paid work has become sedentary?

    I agree with Harold that the medical case against tobacco is overwhelming, and this should have strong implications for public policy. I also agree with Harold that there are limits to this, and we have reached these limits with employment discrimination. But I would extend Harold’s solicitude to other health issues linked to non-ruling class lifestyles–especially those for which the scientific evidence is far weaker. Yes, I’m especially thinking of you, obesity.

    1. The ruling class is skinny? Like Chris Christie, Karl Rove and Al Gore? To cite three that come immediately to mind.

      1. Karl Rove and Chris Christie aren’t really part of any ruling class, at least not yet, anyway. They’re basically upper level servants; well paid but still plebs. Al Gore being the son of a fairly well-to-do senator who became vice-president and became rich is someplace in-between. Paris Hilton is part of the ruling class in this country and no matter what else you want to say about her, she’s not fat.

    2. Amen, Ebbie!

      People are at their nastiest and most suspicious when hiring, I think. I can sort of see why. But still.

  5. It would be a fun experiment to send in 10 fake applicants with killer resumes and have 5 say that they smoke tobacco and the other 5 say they don’t smoke tobacco, but do smoke pot/crack etc. and see whether they had different rates of getting a job offer.

    1. I can’t think of any employer I’ve ever worked for that would hire someone who flat-out announced “I smoke pot” or “I use crack” in a job interview. Regardless of the personal opinions of the interviewer, that just seems like a sign of remarkably poor judgement.

    2. When a drug-testing policy was announced at a previous place of employment, I sat down with my boss and calmly explained why I would refuse to take such a test even if it meant immediate dismissal. I worked there five more years and was never asked to pee in a cup.

      When I was being interviewed for my current job, I told the interviewer (now my boss) that I won’t take a drug test as a condition of employment because I am only offering to lease them my productivity for the job I am to be paid for — the rest of the time is mine and is not for rent, and therefore what I choose to do with it is not theirs to regulate. The response was that if they drug-tested, nobody, including my boss, would be working there. I assume that response is more common in places like Silicon Valley than here in the mid-west — at least for the type of job I was applying for, but I hear it’s fairly universal in industries like construction.

    1. Europeans. No, seriously, smoking is still much more prevalent in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe. In Western Europe, there are many regulations similar to those in most states here and taxes on tobacco are much higher. It fails to stop pervasive smoking. In East European countries, it’s much worse, as regulations are sparse (except for those which are now part of the EU and are gradually adopting new standards). And European immigrants here smoke in great numbers. Of course, the same is true of immigrants from most developing countries.

      I’m sure the question was meant to imply that some ethnic minorities are more susceptible to smoking than others, but the problem has nothing to do with ethnicity, but with cultural differences largely associated with income and SES, in general. Smoking used to be a cheap “vice” that would appeal as a sinful pleasure to low-SES. There are also regional differences, with Midwest and South much more susceptible than either coast. We once stopped at a Waffle House in Virginia while traveling along I-95 and we walked out of there with the only desire to change our clothes. There were no other customers when we walked in, but the place reeked of stale smoke. A wool sweater required a double dry cleaning to make the smell go away. I’ve seen nothing like this in more than a decade, since regulations proscribing smoking in various places went into effect.

      At a certain university, where “individualism” was prized, top deans were “grandfathered” under the university smoking policy, although city regulations proscribed smoking in public buildings. When these assholes smoked (and some of them smoked cheap cigars), the stench would pervade the buildings. It was impossible to hide from it. And, of course, it only bothered non-smokers.

      I have a friend who shares workspace with a co-worker who is an “occasional smoker”. Since they share the workspace, they also share the work chair. The co-worker never smokes in the office and claims he does not smoke on mornings before coming to the office. Yet, the chair is penetrated with the odor and it is impossible to eradicate. Another friend used to go bar hopping with a couple of smoker friends. All her outerwear reeks of stale smoke even though she is a non-smoker and the bars are non-smoking.

      This, in a nutshell, is my argument for thinking twice about hiring a smoker. This does not mean that I would argue about outright dropping a smoking candidate, but, if I were hiring, a smoker would have to be more than minimally better qualified than non-smoking candidates. In a sense, it’s akin to my interpretation of affirmative action–all else being equal, you give a preference to one type of employee over the other. And “equal” is defined somewhat loosely.

      There’s been a lot of back-and-forth on the economic argument. I’m not sure I would agree outright with either side. There is a lot of evidence that smokers are less productive than their non-smoking counterparts–again, all else being equal. This is unrelated to other forms of corporate expenses that smokers may generate–this is a more difficult case to evaluate. But there is no question that current smokers spend less time in the workplace. This is documented in a number of research reports. The problem, of course, is that these are statistical results and evaluate everyone as a part of a group. When hiring, each candidate should be evaluated individually. Individual differences may well be wider than class differences. I’ve known highly productive smokers and some slacker non-smokers. But I’ve had particular experiences with smokers who take repeated breaks and otherwise waste time in direct relation to their habit. It might have been a coincidence but all those smokers also happened to be highly irritable individuals whom I never would have put in front of a customer–not to mention that they were a negative pleasure to work with. However, as I said, it is impossible to tell this in advance. But sacking such an individual would be an easy call.

  6. “a much-less disturbing intrusion of the nanny state”

    It’s not the nanny state if it’s done by private employers.

  7. It’s hard to argue that smoking shows ANY sort of good judgment. However you took it up, it shows a willingness to conform to peer pressure, or a prioritization of partying over the future, or an unwillingness to believe in scientific evidence. Point is, all of these seems like perfectly reasonable characteristics for an employer to consider.

    Harold seems to be operating on a model where 20% of the population, RANDOMLY, are afflicted with the curse of being a smoker, and it’s unfair for everyone else to pick on them. This doesn’t seem to match reality, and is not what I imagine is going through employer’s minds.

    1. It’s hard to argue that being religious shows ANY sort of good judgment. However you took it up, it shows a willingness to conform to peer pressure, or a prioritization of faith over everything else, or an unwillingness to believe in scientific evidence. Point is, all of these seems like perfectly reasonable characteristics for an employer to consider.

      1. I would also urge you to consider that for some people, those with ADHD for instance, smoking is a way for them to self-medicate. Same with people who have suffered from schizophrenia at some point in their lives, these people are overwhelmingly likely to be smokers (my understanding is that nicotine “calms” them in a certain way). I’m not saying smokers need to be a protected class on par with people with disabilities or ethnic minorities, but your initial post makes smoking out to be a much simpler “choice” than it actually is.

        1. I’m aware of this claim, wrt both schizophrenia and ADHD (where David Sedaris was the poster child). Of course David Sedaris QUIT smoking once he concluded that the social hassle it entailed was just too much…
          However basing a general policy on a minor subset of the population is silly. Pretending this minority represents the majority is the refuge of those who want to win the debate but don’t actually have any good arguments.

      2. And what make you think I would have a problem with a company choosing its employees based on their (lack of) religious beliefs?

    2. Maynard has forgotten that nicotine is an addictive drug, and the tobacco companies market to teenagers. There are a lot of people who are pretty stupid as teenagers and turn into responsible adults, still dogged by their nicotine addiction. Is Maynard arguing that a stupid decision made by a 15-year-old has predictive power for the same person at age 45?

      This includes a fellow named Barack Hussein Obama, whose willpower was sufficient to become president before it was sufficient for him to kick the habit.

    3. The problem with that argument is that nicotine is highly addictive. It may have been that somebody actually exercised poor judgement as a teenager to take up smoking or did it because of peer pressure, and still is plagued by that decades later, even though he rationally knows it’s unhealthy (a lot of smokers that I know do know that and are trying to stop — they just can’t quit, or at least not for an extended period of time). I can think of plenty of dumb things that I did as a teenager or during my undergraduate years, but luckily, none of the poor decisions I made back then were of the kind that would haunt me for decades.

      On top of that, even insofar as smoking may illustrate poor judgement, I don’t know of any scientific evidence that smoking is actually a good predictor for lack of job performance (much of the same criticism can be leveled at the ever-popular personality tests, or at least the way that they are actually used) outside of physically demanding jobs. As such, it strikes me more as an exercise in tea-leaf reading than evaluation of fitness for a job.

  8. mark-

    Apparently, employers are clinging to their freedom to choose among who THEY – and not you – believe to be the best employees to fill a position. That freedom thing is a bitch sometimes.

    1. Lou–
      You’re entitled to your opinion, but if you can’t tell the difference between Mark and Harold you need to calm down. (Try a cigarette.)

      On substance: if you read Harold’s post he’s not actually denying employers’ *freedom* to hire only nonsmokers. He’s just saying they’re jerks (more academically, “unethical”) if they make that choice.

      That ethical responsibility for one’s free choices is a bitch sometimes.

    2. Yeah. Our Kenyan Muslim Socialist legal system doesn’t even give an employer the freedom to believe that Negroes make bad employees. A violent infringement on freedom of association! What’s next: laws permitting unions?

  9. What Maynard says. But as long as we still have employer-based health insurance in this country, for the most part, I’m OK with a 50% surcharge on smokers. And another $2 per pack federal tax, including the smokeless product. My former employer, a large medical school/teaching hospital went to a totally smoke-free campus a few years ago. It was worth it just not to see the lung cancer patients sitting outside the cancer center with the cis-platin dripping from the IV pole, smoking. Aside from that, smoking among employees is down significantly in the state with the highest rate of lung cancer in the nation. Win-win. It would be interesting to know how many of these employees feel bullied. A reasonable guess is that most of them are grateful for the policy that finally encouraged them to quit once and for all. Yes, I know. I’m harsh and unreasonable. But my father died of metastatic lung cancer at 55 after the US Navy encouraged him to take up the habit in the late 1940s when he was still a teenager, my grandfather of metastatic bladder cancer at 58, and the father of a good friend from a heart attack, most likely caused by a tobacco-caused platelet event, at 51. And it’s not just me. My experience is generalizable to the entire population.

  10. I’m not justifying it, but smokers can cause resentment among their coworkers because they’re visibly working 50 minute hours while everybody else has their head down. Unless somebody is keeping a fifth in their desk drawer or shooting up in the bathrooms, you can’t casually identify a colleague as an alcoholic or a doper just by sitting at the next desk. Smokers are high profile goofers off, which for everybody else is regarded as unacceptable.

    You still shouldn’t refuse to hire them, but they do make managers’ jobs harder, and managers know in advance that they’re going to.

    1. Well, ideally, everybody (at least in an office environment) should take short hourly breaks for health reasons. In fact, here in the UK, an opportunity for regular short breaks away from the computer for anybody with a desk job is mandated by law (I know because that information was part of required health and safety training I had to undergo upon being hired). The problem here seems to be more a confusion of “physical presence” with “productivity”. So not only is it a perception issue, it’s a perception issue based on an arguably flawed metric.

      Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if addictions had negative effects on productivity (I haven’t looked at the issue and so don’t know one way or another), but this particular problem strikes me as one of many outdated perceptions regarding workplace standards. Research indicates, for example, that aside from certain outliers, most people can be productive only about 40 hours a week, give or take, but somehow people who work 50 or 60 hours get credit for working hard when in total they’re no more productive or, worse, start making mistakes from being overworked that then have to be taken care of by others.

  11. Our legal system has correctly made prior restraint illegal. Since most new hires submit to a formal, or informal, probationary period, isn’t that the appropriate time to make judgments regarding an employee’s productivity, reliability, and work ethic?

    1. Yes but I don’t think that the real issue here. The question is whether we want to limit the permissible grounds for employers making certain kinds of hiring decisions, regardless of the economic merits. On purely economic grounds, it can make sense not to hire women since they are generally capable of becoming pregnant—with all of the attendant economic burdens for employers. No doubt there are also circumstances where it would make economic sense not to hire African-Americans if a business might alienate or offend its customers. These seem to be to be easy cases and, generally speaking, our society has collectively decided that there are impermissible grounds for discriminating in hiring regardless of economic logic.

      A somewhat harder case would be a employer who demands DNA test of new employees on the ground that people with certain conditions (or who are likely to develop those conditions) cost the company more money, for various reasons that might include (but not be limited to) more costly health insurance. Similarly, can an employer refuse to hire women of childbearing age for conditions that involve danger to a fetus such as radiation exposure on similar ground (i.e., children born with birth defects are more costly to the health insurance plan, mothers of such children might be less productive because of worries or extra time spend away from work because the children’s needs are greater, etc). We need to address these issues and, I believe, also to reconsider the neo-liberal framework within which we have often addressed similar issues in the past.

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