Human Resources News & Insights

Banning smokers: Good idea or going overboard?

Some employers have gone ballistic on smoking — going so far as to refuse to hire smokers. Some researchers, from a surprising source, say that could be a mistake. Let’s start with the question of whether you could institute an HR policy of refusing to hire smokers — based on the health costs or just general objections to smoking. You can’t mandate such a ban if you’re in the District of Columbia or any of the 30 states that have so-called “smokers’ rights” laws that prohibit hiring decisions based on smoking. Of course, in most states, you can prohibit smoking on company property by employees and others.

But back to the question of whether it would be a good idea to refuse to hire smokers. One anti-smoking journal, Tobacco Control, says that may not be a good idea. Here’s why:

  • If the decision were based on health-related costs, you could easily then ask, Why not ban people with with weight-related problems, such as high cholesterol or diabetes?
  • Would you be turning away good talent because of a smoking addiction — an addiction that could be licked with some help? Sure, when unemployment is high and lots of people are job hunting, you can be choosy. But do you really want to lose that top salesperson or IT manager to a competitor because of smoking? And what about when the employment market turns around, and you find yourself scrambling for good people?

Researchers at Tobacco Control recommend against a ban on hiring smokers. Instead, they say, employers should push hard to get employees into smoking-cessation programs, especially ones sponsored at work. Every analysis of such programs shows they’re cost effective in improving absentee rates and time lost because of smoking-related illnesses.

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  • I think The American Lung Assoc. goes too far when it implies that smokers are a “protected class” at least in CA. While I haven’t yet taken the time to see if there is case law regarding smokers per se, the Labor Code cites do not mention smokers at all. Yes, they imply that if you are doing something on your own time that is not illegal, then you can’t suffer a negative employment decision because of it. It makes me wonder if the rest of the cites that the American Lung Assoc. noted are equally vague.

    I have over 500 dentists as clients nationwide and they don’t want to hire smokers because it is offensive to their patients. Also, they are “health providers” and as such, do not want people representing them who smoke. I think this is a legitimate business decision. What do you think?

  • I can see why companies would consider this policy, not only are there costs involved in the long term as a result of smokers draw on the health care system but in my office there is a high level of loss of productivity from the constant breaks throughout the day, we have a group of smokers in our administrative group who are within view of my office and they break every hour to smoke, in a group outside the building, 5 people all breaking for 15 minutes each hour adds up, plus then they have to get settled back in, return the missed calls from customers– etc-

  • Liberty

    In my opinion smoking does not impact employers health care costs. Smoking damage is more often seen in seniors; retired seniors. More cost are related to diabetes, childbirth and cholesterol related heart disease. Not smoking.
    I believe that all this brou ha ha is the fact that people simply don’t like the lingering smell of smoke. And that is not a just cause to not hire someone. As with banning perfumes in the workplace, prohibit the smell but don’t not hire someone because they smoke.

  • Pam

    I am an Administrator of a HomeCare company, as well as a Registered Nurse. The majority of our patient population suffers from heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease, most of which were related to smoking and obesity. It is heartbreaking to watch what these folks go through in their later years because of these addictions. However, it is very difficult as an RN to implement patient teaching concerning heart disease or the dangers of smoking when your RN or your aide smell like an ashtray. Also, for those who smoke, I feel you underestimate the effect it has on your coworkers. I liked the comment about the 15 minute breaks. Not just the breaks, but the time spent getting readjusted in the office. My CSR always says, “I’m taking a break. Come and get me if you need anything.” Do I have time to get her 15 min every hour? No. So I answer her phone, take the messages, and do her job while she is gone. Why let her go every hour? Because when she goes without a cigarette for over an hour she is short tempered, edgy, emotional, and irritable. It’s a no win situation. And as many of you know, it is not so easy to let people go based on those reasons, especially if they don’t exist with a nicotine lift every hour. And I must keep a bottle of allergy nose spray at my desk because of the sensitivity to the smoke. The staff that smoke are convinced that by smoking away from the door, outside, and by applying perfume when they come in, it is not noticible that they smoked. WRONG! We smell it all over you all the time. If you spray perfume, you semll like perfumed cigarette smoke, if you chew gum, your breath smells like minty ashtray. And in my business, it is creating the very patients for which we provide care. Though we have no rules concerning non-hire of smokers, I wish that I could make that decision.

  • Jennifer

    If a company decides to not hire smokers based on health care costs, that’s not right. We have over 100 employees at our company, we have very few smokers, but we have several overweight people, several with diabetes, some with cancer (not smoking related), and they are the ones who cause our health insurance to skyrocket, not the smokers. If the ban is wanted because of the breaks, that’s an HR issue, folks are entitled to two 10 minute breaks and an hour lunch, smoke then, but if employees are ducking out more often, HR needs to step in and tell them they can’t come and go as they please. As for the smell of smoking, I agree it’s not pleasant, but what’s worse to me is women who wear heavy perfumes. The second hand smoke stench is gone in a few minutes but some of those heavy perfumes can linger for hours.

  • Smokers should not have any more breaks than non-smokers. They should not get special treatment because they have an addiction. If they wish to take more breaks they should at least not get paid for that time. Also, sure some employes may have diabetes, cancer and weight problems but you can’t get those health problems from standing next to someone who has those..but you can get cancer and other illnesses from being around smokers. I had breast cancer a few years ago and I was told by a specialists that I should not be in smokey places nor around smokers…cancer cells thrive on that. The other thing is when someone has body odor we let employees know that they need to clean up…the smell of smoke on teir clothes and body is just as bad and offensive. I say it should be the right of the employer to make that choice.

  • Tracy

    I personally don’t like the smell of smoke, or how people smell after they smoke, but it is their right to smoke if they want to. I don’t think someone shouldn’t get hired just because they smoke. Yes, it can add to the healthcare cost, but so can so many other things. Also, where do you draw the line, are you not hired if you ever smoked or just if you are a current smoker? I had a boss that hadn’t smoke for about 10 years before he got hired and now has cancer which cost our self funded plan a LOT of money. I do agree with Barbara, I don’t want my healthcare professionals smelling like smoke, especially my dentist or dental hygienist, they are way too close to my face for that. I would change doctors if I had one that smoked and could smell it every time I went to them. YUCK!

  • BJS

    We cannot regulate what someone does on their off (non-working) hours. If you don’t want people to smoke during working hours the easy solution is to make your building or campus a smoke-free facility. If a person cannot go eight hours without a cigarette then it will be their choice to find another job where smoking is allowed. I agree with the commenters who say that the number and length of breaks is an HR issue – why aren’t we managing our employees? We have progressive disciplinary procedures for a reason and whether you are outside smoking or talking on your cell phone, you are still using company time for personal business – ‘write ’em up!’ We’ve got to stop letting the government make our hiring and personnel decisions for us or we will ALL be regulated out of our jobs! Today, smokers; tomorrow, obese people; next week, blondes. . .


    pick on smokers but pot heads and alcholics can get a job????? Smokers cant get work ??? Against my constitutional RIGHTS