Friday, February 03, 2006

Should Employers Restrict Smoking?

While the subject of smoking is still fresh in my mind, I thought I'd bring up what I see as a big problem ahead. Some employers have prohibited their employees from smoking at any time. Not just on the job, but also in the comfort of their own homes. The reasoning behind it is that it reduces health insurance costs.

I think this opens a whole can of worms.

First, I don't think you can prevent this on constitutional grounds, at least not without doing more violence to the Constitution itself. Some day Congress is going to need to take action in this area.

The biggest problem: how can they extend this reasoning? Since most employers that provide health insurance for the employee also provide it to the employee's family, then can they prevent the employee's spouse from smoking? Can you be fired from a job for your spouse's smoking habit?

Obesity is currently touted as the #1 health problem among Americans. Can you fire someone for being fat? What if they have chubby kids? Alternatively, can they cut off the health insurance to the family members purely on the grounds that they are overweight, smokers, or alcoholics?

Can they go even further? Can they, on this reasoning, force you into a particular diet and exercise regime? And the rest of your family?

I don't know about you, but every one of these things scares me.


  1. I think if an ER is in an "at will termination" jurisdiction than they can fire you for any reason. "You're wife's too fat" could be an unstated reason. While there are some jurisdictions that require just cause termination, many do not, and it could be contracted around.

  2. The question is whether that is desirable.

  3. They can refuse to hire someone who is overweight, and in some professions (such as waitressing/bartending) there have been lawsuits regarding dismissal of (mainly) women who've gained too much weight.

    In a lot of states, they don't really need a reason to fire you anyway - like in WA, the employer can terminate your employment at any time with one day's notice for no reason whatsoever.

    But don't even get me started on the smoking thing. I'm still stuck on the whole banning smoking in cars statutes that several states are considering. That intrudes a little too far into my personal rights for my taste. I get the indoor smoking ban/25 foot rule they passed, that's fair enough. But once they start telling me I can't smoke in/on my own property (such as my car), they've crossed a line.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. At will employment is just that -- at the will of the employee or employer. Unless the individual is in a legally protected class, they can be fired for anything - smoking, having a relative that smokes, wearing the wrong color shirt, being ugly, pretty much anything.

    There are people who think these kind of terminations aren't fair, and so they form unions and bargain collectively, frequently including procedures and rationales for termination.

    In the private, non-unionized sector, I don't really see all that much wrong with it. There are plenty of employers who do allow smoking, plenty who do not, and plenty who don't care one way or the other. Seems to me if its important to the employee, they should align themselves with an employer who supports their lifestyle or at the very least doesn't care.

  5. On the one hand, businesses should be allowed to make their own decisions about what's good for their business (and this includes SMOKING IN BARS, LINCOLN). On the other hand, businesses shouldn't be able to wield that autonomy to back their employees into corners... While middle and upper-middle class workers will able to choose between quitting smoking and finding another job, those who live paycheck to paycheck or who work lower-wage jobs with little benefits are far less likely to have a choice. By and large, the less education or specialization required for a job, the less power the employees wield and the less likely the are to be able to find another they cling to the work they already have, and the corporations exploit this for their own gain.

    It's fine to say that the employee should investigate before they take the job, but in this day and age companies switch hands more often than I change my socks, so what is a smoker-friendly job on Monday may be withholding benefits to smokers on Wednesday. This puts those who can least afford it in the position to either conform to the company's desires or be jobless..