Washington's secretary of state raised what appeared to be a simple question earlier this month: Could state agencies refuse to hire smokers?
But the question, put to several department heads in the state capital, set off a statewide debate over individual rights and the desire to create a safer workplace.
No state has ever taken such a decisive step toward eliminating smokers from its cubicles and corner offices. And the idea has not even become a formal legislative proposal. But it is part of a growing movement among employers to cut health-care costs by enticing workers to amend their potentially unhealthy behavior - both at home and on the job.
The trend is one that raises numerous constitutional issues, as critics accuse employers of "lifestyle discrimination" and meddling in employees' private lives. Yet as the costs of tobacco-related illnesses rise into the hundreds of billions of dollars per year, bold ideas like the one here are being considered more seriously nationwide.
"What I'm really trying to do is get the costs on the table," says Secretary of State Ralph Munro. "There's so much in emotional and social costs in time lost."
Employers trying to reduce health-care costs have created a variety of incentives to mold a fitter work force. In levying fees for tobacco use, obesity, and other health concerns, and rewarding exercise with lower health insurance and premiums, some firms have drawn fire from activist groups.
Jerry Sheehan, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, says these incentives pose many problems, "not the least of which is a violation of the privacy protection clause of the Washington constitution, which says government is not to involve itself in a person's private affairs.... That's the short and sweet bottom line of it."
The state Department of Personnel, however, is trying to find out whether Washington can refuse to hire smokers. Dennis Karras, director of the department, cites court cases in North Miami and Oklahoma City that have supported municipal governments that discouraged smoking.
But Mr. Munro doesn't need to look far to find an example of a government that puts a premium on nonsmokers. In Thurston County, home to the state capital., Olympia, county auditor Sam Reed posts job openings with the following proviso: "The Thurston County Auditor's Office is a nonsmoking office. Hiring preference will be given to nonsmokers."
In the 12 years since Mr. Reed began this policy, it has never been challenged. Then again, he adds that he has never turned down a finalist for a position or fired anyone because of smoking.
He offers his employees stop-smoking workshops through the county, and while he has no exact figures, he says he has seen increases in productivity and reductions in sick-leave since the policy began.
Jim Austin says the policy has helped him. The licensing specialist in Reed's office has smoked on and off for more than 20 years. But since he quit 19 months ago, he says he has felt a lot of support from co-workers who used to smoke.
"We encourage each other to stay nonsmokers, or if we have a relapse, to get on the bandwagon again," he says. Personal experience has shown him that smokers take more breaks, have lower energy levels, and are less productive, he says, so he supports Reed's policy.
"I don't necessarily think it's discrimination," Mr. Austin adds. "I think an organization has a right to implement such a policy."
Figures on the effectiveness of such policies are mixed. According to a study by Johnson & Johnson, 15 to 25 percent of employee health-care costs stem from preventable illnesses. A Du Pont study found that smokers cost their employers an average of $960 each year in sick days and insurance claims.
But the Bureau of National Affairs found that 95 percent of companies did not save any money by banning smoking, and two states have passed laws against lifestyle discrimination.
Still, Munro says a policy of not hiring smokers might have a positive effect on young people entering the work force. Studies show that they count costs when deciding to smoke, as witnessed by reductions in smoking rates following cigarette tax hikes.
"I'm trying to send a message to young people. This isn't just a health issue," Munro says. "This is an issue where you might not get a job."