Friday, 1 April 2011

Discriminating against smokers at work

Hard not to agree with Michael Siegel that policy makers at Michigan hospitals (where applicants who test positive for nicotine are refused employment) are engaging in discriminatory behaviour. They are rejecting applicants who show even the traces of nicotine detectable in someone who is trying to give up smoking using nicotine substitutes. As if this were not sufficiently absurd, they deny that what they are doing is discrimination because people don't have a constitutional right to smoke ... a non-sequitur if ever I saw one.

The point about discrimination is not whether it is affronting somebody's constitutional right to do something, it's whether applicants to a job are being evaluated according to their suitability to do the job or on irrelevant factors to do with any other agenda, be it racism, gender discrimination, healthism, or whatever. It is deciding that someone thought able to do the job on interview is not given the opportunity to prove themselves because nicotine has been traced in their system.  'In two instances, Crittenton had to revoke job offers because the applicants tested positive for nicotine during a screening, Kapuscinski said.' The applicants had already been preferred over other applicants before being ditched.

Aiming to 'foster a healthier work force, as well as to demonstrate to our patients and the community our strong commitment to health and wellness' may be laudable, but it doesn't rule out the possibility of discrimination. Most discrimination is probably defended by those that practise it on the grounds that it upholds some kind of cultural/asthetic/moral value.

Not only does this policy pick on smokers (as opposed to the obese or sexually active), as being unsuitable employees for a health establishment, it also makes it difficult for those who are trying to quit smoking using nicotine to get employment in the health field. It is hard to see a more blatant example of discrimination against smokers in respect not only of non-smokers but also in relation to almost anyone else who does not tick all the boxes.

This policy is expected to spread, we are told by 'experts' (John Banzaf leading the field: this is the organisation of which he is chief executive, you can see him give his tuppence worth about a council's anti-smoking policy in Scotland here). We can see how smokers get the short straw: it reflects the power of the enemies of tobacco in the market place. A workers' representative protests,
"It's not right for employers to tell employees what to do when they're off-duty," said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.
In my view Mr Maltby has not made the critical point that smoking workers are being discriminated against, meaning that regardless of their abilities they cannot gain employment in a profession even if they have invested in training for it. Being off-duty is a luxury to those who can't even get work:
'The idea has caught on outside Michigan. Some police forces in Ohio have adopted similar policies to control health care costs, and Ohio-based Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has a nicotine-free hiring policy ...
Already it has gone beyond health-related employment. The time will come when smokers will be able to claim discrimination, and it will be long overdue.

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