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Smokers need not apply: Is hiring ban trend of the future?

More private companies are screening out smokers during the hiring process, citing a need to cut health-care costs. It's generally legal, but critics say it's intrusive and unfair.

By Sara AfzalContributor / November 17, 2010

These employees of the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA), May Chhav, Patty Crowley, and Joe Kirkpatrick, (l.-r.), do not smoke. Starting in January, the MHA will not hire anyone who smokes.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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For about two decades, smokers have been pushed steadily out of the workplace, as lawmakers and employers have sought to minimize exposure to second-hand smoke.

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Employers have confined smokers to designated areas, moved smoking areas outside buildings, and limited smoking breaks. Now, some companies are opting to push smokers out of the workplace altogether.

That's the case with the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA), an employer of 45 that announced earlier this month it would no longer hire people who smoke. The firm is the first private employer in Massachusetts to take such a step, though several others elsewhere – such as the Cleveland Clinic, a medical center based in Ohio; Alaska Airlines; and Union Pacific Railroad – have also stopped hiring smokers.

Supporters of the hire-no-smokers policy say it will provide smoke-free work environments and help employers control their health-care costs. But critics argue it's a form of discrimination that, moreover, it intrudes into the private lifestyle choices of prospective employees.

The decision to stop hiring smokers as of Jan. 1 fits with MHA's mission as a health advocacy organization, says chief executive Lynn Nicholas. "The MHA ... is a spokesperson for hospitals across the commonwealth, and tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the US. We want to drive the cost of health care down so that is more affordable," she says.

MHA's employees will be expected to report smoking through an honor system, and cessation programs will be offered to existing employees who smoke, says Nicholas, who lost her father and several other relatives to smoking or secondhand smoke. "Smoking is a personal choice, and as an employer I have a personal choice within the law about who we hire and who we don't," says Nicholas.

Excluding smokers from the hiring pool is something John Banzhaf, for one, would like to see more companies do.

"Smoking is the biggest factor in controllable health-care costs," says Mr. Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), an antismoking group in Washington, and a law professor at George Washington University. Banning the hiring of smokers "appears to be spreading rapidly through the entire private sector – not just health-related industries – especially as health-care costs continue to soar."

The average smoker costs companies more than $12,000 a year in health- and disability-related costs and takes four 15-minute breaks a day, reports ASH.

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