May 13, 2005

What in the World? Employees Fired for Smoking OFF the Job

I’m not easily shocked by the intrusions of the nanny state and the nanny culture. I know how they think, because for a brief time many, many years ago, I thought that way too. One of my old beliefs that I have thankfully thrown overboard had to do with smoking, which was essentially:

Stop smoking, you’re costing me money! You’re making me sick! You’re making your children, my children, and everbody else sick! Ban smoking in every public place.

I was even briefly a member of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in the late-1970s. I stopped paying dues when they showed that they were lying about their true agenda. ASH in the late-1970s told us: “We don’t want to ban smoking. We just want non-smokers to be able to be in smoke-free environments when they are out in public.”

Baloney. It is obvious today that from the very beginning, ASH and their ilk were all about banning smoking, permanently, everywhere (and, until that day comes, shaking down tobacco companies at every turn). If ASH had been honest about its agenda from the beginning, most of its earlier contributors would have rejected it. So they did what any radical organization does: they lied to get money, ginned up phony studies, including those showing how secondhand smoke harms people (when it may very well be the opposite; additionally, much of the “science” behind the secondhand smoke hysteria is clearly sloppy, or worse), and worked the media relentlessly to demonize smokers and tobacco companies.

Which brings me to something that isn’t a brand new issue, but is one that has gotten some recent notice: Companies are firing and/or not hiring people who only smoke off the job:

More companies are taking action against employees who smoke off-duty, and, in an extreme trend that some call troubling, some are now firing or banning the hiring of workers who light up even on their own time.

The outright bans raise new questions about how far companies can go in regulating workers’ behavior when they are off the clock. The crackdown is coming in part as a way to curb soaring health care costs, but critics say companies are violating workers’ privacy rights. The zero-tolerance policies are coming as more companies adopt smoke-free workplaces.

…..(one example) Alaska Airlines has a no-smoking policy for employees, and new hires must submit to a urine test to prove they’re tobacco-free.

“The debate has gone from where they can smoke to whether they can smoke,” says Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis-based employment lawyer.

Such bans are not legal everywhere: More than 20 states have passed laws that bar companies from discriminating against workers for lifestyle decisions.

Imagine the outrage if employers started firing people for other off-the-clock lifestyle decisions:
- Living together outside of marriage.
- Adultery (with non-employees or their spouses/partners).
- Skydiving.
- Going to church.

As an employer, I could gin up bogus arguments that each of these could cause “harm” to my company’s work environment or increase my medical insurance costs (for the first two, greater exposure to STDs; for the third, medical costs of injuries; for the last, the potential for bringing “divisiveness” into the workplace). Everyone (I hope) would recognize these arguments as drivel.

It seems like the non-discrimination laws noted above would be superfluous in a society that truly believes in individual freedom, but obviously not. How sad.

(Fully unnecessary disclosure: I don’t smoke, and never have. My late father, who died in his mid-70s, did, but quit 15 years before his death. My mom, who is in her late 70s, has smoked occasionally, but not for decades.)