Smokers' rights groups and civil liberties advocates contend that the growing trend of not hiring smokers in Ohio is discriminatory and could lead to bans against hiring others at risk of missing work.
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“What about women of childbearing age? Will they be next?” Pam Parker, co-founder of Opponents of Ohio Bans, asked. “If tobacco were illegal, I would be totally behind what these companies are doing, but it’s not.”
Parker’s group and others are backing a bill expected to be introduced soon in the Ohio legislature by State Rep. Stephen Dyer, D-Green, that would make it illegal to refuse to hire people who use tobacco products outside the workplace.
“While I applaud the idea of a drug-free workplace, a ban on tobacco redefines the concept,” Dyer said.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia have made it illegal for employers to make employment decisions based on off-duty smoking. Two states — California and Connecticut — prohibit discrimination on the basis of all legal behavior.
While the American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to nicotine-free hiring policies, Ohio's "employment at will" laws prevent the organization from doing anything about it, Mike Brickner, a spokesman for the ACLU in Ohio, said.
“We have always taken the position that employers should not have the right to regulate outside-employment activities, but Ohio employers have such huge leeway under the law” it’s no use fighting it in court, he said.
Premier Health Partners, the parent of Miami Valley and Good Samaritan Hospitals, has taken the toughest stand against tobacco thus far in the Dayton area. This year, it began assessing an annual $520 surcharge on health care benefits for employees who admit to smoking or chewing tobacco, lighting up cigars, or living in a household where others smoke.
Premier does not test employees for tobacco use.
At Kettering Health Network facilities, including Kettering and Grandview medical centers, employees are not permitted to smoke during breaks, even if they’re off campus, because they’ll return to work smelling of tobacco, said Leslie Grooms, Kettering’s network director of compensation and benefits.
The no-smoking, no-smell policy is for the safety and comfort of their patients, she said. Just the smell of cigarette smoke “could cause a negative reaction in asthma patients” and others with lung conditions, she said. “And, certainly, it’s not something you want around newborns.”
Smoking has been on the decline in Ohio since 1995, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Back then, about one in four Ohio adults were smokers (26 percent). Today, the proportion is fewer than one in five (18 percent).
With health insurance costs continuing to climb when employers are also being squeezed by a recession, smokers may be just the first targets of insurance-driven hiring policies, said Mary White, a professor of ethics at Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine.
Similar policies based “on aging, on weight, on whatever criteria they choose (to lower their insurance costs) might be considered,” she said.
"If we're content to deny health care coverage to one of every six people in this country, we'll just let it keep going" to ever larger categories of people, she said.