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Ohio proposal would ban employers from refusing to hire smokers

5:20 AM, Mar 25, 2010   |    comments
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  • House Bill 470 would fine employers who violate its terms $25,000 on the first offense, $50,000 on the second and $100,000 for each subsequent violation. Rep. Stephen Dyer, a Democrat from Green and former Akron Beacon-Journal reporter, sponsored the bill. Dyer didn't immediately return a call.

    Under the terms of the proposal, employers couldn't fire "without just cause," refuse to hire or "otherwise discriminate" against Ohioans because they smoke tobacco.

    The proposal isn't likely to sit well with employers such as the Cleveland Clinic, Summa Health System, Parma Community General Hospital and Medical Mutual of Ohio, all of which have adopted nicotine-free hiring policies in an attempt to cut health spending.

    The Cleveland Clinic, in particular, has drawn attention in recent years for its policy of not hiring smokers. That controversy intensified last year when Chief Executive Toby Cosgrove said he'd also prefer to not hire obese people, and lamented that it's illegal to apply the same hiring standards to the obese as it is to smokers. The Clinic administers a urine test to prospective hires to determine if they smoke tobacco.

    In a memo on the Cleveland Clinic's website, Cosgrove said more than 6,000 companies across the country have adopted hiring bans on smokers "to promote a healthy workplace." He disputed claims that the policy is more about saving money than encouraging health. A Clinic representative didn't immediately return a call.

    Ed Byers, a spokesman for Medical Mutual, said he wasn't familiar with the legislative proposal and couldn't comment on it. Medical Mutual began its hiring ban on smokers in 2006 and "we've had no complaints from any employees about our policy," he said. The company doesn't test employees for nicotine after they've been hired.

    Laws protecting smokers rights vary by state. Some states--though it's not clear how many-- prohibit discrimination against those who smoke outside of work hours, American Medical News reported.

    Nicotine-free hiring policies can help employers reduce costs during a time of rapidly rising health-insurance premiums, advocates say. But opponents argue that employers are overstepping their bounds when they attempt to prevent workers from consuming a legal product in their own homes.

    A report published last year in the journal Tobacco Control said hiring bans on smokers may bring unintended consequences and could do more harm than good, the L.A. Times reported. As more companies adopt nicotine-free hiring policies, it could make smokers nearly unemployable, cause them to lose their health insurance and negatively affect their health and that of their families, the report's authors said.

    Rep. Dyer's proposal wouldn't prohibit employers from adopting policies that forbid employees from smoking tobacco, or smelling like tobacco smoke, during hours of employment.

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