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Corporate smokeoutAs city considers ban, employers talk toughFebruary 20, 2005Driving a truck for Towne Air Freight is a smoke-free affair. It doesn't matter that truckers are alone on the open highway miles from their Indianapolis branch. If they light up one too many times, they're fired.
Employees at Lowe's Home Improvement stores sneak to their cars to puff on cigarettes -- which are banned not just inside, but on company property outside, including parking lots and cars.
And at CorVasc MD Mickie Montano huddles away from the building to enjoy her smoke, feeling a bit guilty as the doctors and surgeons stride past her.
She is one of six smokers left at the 170-person cardiothoracic and vascular surgical company, which has taken an aggressive approach to helping its workers become smoke-free.
Within weeks, Montano will get a nudge from CorVasc to quit after more than 40 years as the company pays for an intense, one-on-one counseling program, as well as patches and gum.
"It's hard for me because I have that rebellious streak in me," said Montano, an executive secretary who said she is quitting to save money and the lives of her two cats. "That may be what has stopped me from quitting in the past. I've been like, 'What do you mean I can't smoke?' "
As the city of Indianapolis considers a proposal that would ban smoking in restaurants, bars, parks and public places, people such as Montano say it's beginning to feel like home is the only place they can conveniently and shamelessly light up. Nearly 70 percent of the nation's workplaces now are smoke-free, up from 35 percent in 1990, as employers work to reduce the health-care costs associated with smoking.
At least one Indiana lawmaker is interested in restricting smokers' options even more. State Sen. Murray Clark, R-Indianapolis, sponsored two measures this year that would have allowed employers to ban workers from smoking off-duty and let them hire and fire employees based solely on whether they are tobacco users.
Both proposals stalled in a legislative committee over some legislators' concerns that they constitute an invasion of privacy. He plans to try again next year with a proposal that would give employers the right to discriminate strictly when it comes to hiring tobacco users.
"I really don't think smokers should be a protected class," said Clark, who said he is not encouraging employers to fire workers who smoke but does think they should have the right to rein in health care costs.
Indiana is now a smoker's rights state, meaning employers are not allowed to tell workers they can't smoke on their own time.
Employers are allowed to ban it at the workplace and on company time -- and they're doing it. Many more are strongly encouraging workers to kick the habit through incentives and in-depth cessation programs, mainly to eliminate rising health care costs, lost productivity and absenteeism.
"A lot of companies didn't realize how much money goes down the drain when they have smokers," said Malcolm Herring, medical director of the Bridges Nicotine Dependence Services program at CorVasc, which combines nicotine replacement therapy with intense individual counseling and has a 40 percent success rate.
Smoking costs American businesses as much as $125 billion per year, and smokers cost an average of $1,429 more per year than nonsmokers. The average insurance claim of a heavy smoker is $70, compared with $61 for a nonsmoker. The average in-patient stay for a heavy smoker is $700, compared with $575 for a nonsmoker.
Workers who light up take more sick days, have longer hospital stays and take unscheduled leaves that add up to 136 hours of nonproductive paid work time per year, according to Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation.
Health care costs prompted Howard Weyers to take extreme measures. In January, the president of Okemos, Mich.-based Weyco began testing his 200 employees for tobacco use.
Four who refused to take the mandatory Breathalyzer test were fired from the insurance benefits company. The remaining 196 passed. It's a case that prompted a whirlwind of national media coverage.
"I didn't expect that. Our initiative is to get employees healthier. We want to control the cost of health care down the road," said Weyers, who estimates he spends $750,000 a year on employee health premiums.
Weyers has the legal right to fire tobacco-using workers. Indiana employers don't.
"It is fine for an (Indiana) employer to ask an applicant whether he or she smokes, but if that question is asked, the employer should make it clear that smoking on his or her own time is acceptable," said Michael Blickman, a labor and employment attorney with law firm Ice Miller.
But employees should not get greedy about lighting up. They don't have the right to smoke at work, Blickman added.
"We don't allow smoking on our property or in our trucks," said Jerry Scott, vice president of human resources for Towne Air, headquartered in South Bend, Ind. "The image of a trucker with the cigarette hanging out of his mouth, we wanted to get rid of that."
Image and health issues prompted the 1,000- employee air cargo trucking company to become smoke-free. Employees are warned, but if they are found smoking a fourth time, they are terminated, Scott said.
Lowe's implemented a policy more than a year ago that required all of its locations inside and outside to be smoke-free, said spokeswoman Jennifer Smith. The Mooresville, N.C.-based home-improvement retailer gave employees months of advance notice and offered help for them to quit before it implemented the rule.
"Again, we are not telling employees to stop smoking. We are simply saying it is not permitted on our property," said Smith.
Sand Ridge Bank in Schererville, Ind., was a leader in smoke-free initiatives in the early 1990s when it put into place a policy not to hire smokers at all.
Shortly after the adoption of the anti-smoking worker rule, the state legislature enacted the smokers' rights bill and Sand Ridge had to change its hiring practices.
Sand Ridge decided to lead and encourage not through its hiring and firing practices but by offering help, said Guy Staska, vice president of human resources.
The bank began offering cessation classes to employees and their spouses. It also agreed to pay for six months of nicotine replacement therapy (such as the patch) as long as the employee remained nicotine-free for six months more. If not, the worker is required to repay Sand Ridge for the patches.
It hasn't yet banned smoking completely from its property.
"If you want to smoke in the car, I can't stop you from doing that," said Staska. "Well, I guess I can, but we're not going to do that."
Rebecca Hastings, manager of the information center for the Society of Human Resource Management, warned employers against adopting policies that single workers out because of their lifestyle choices.
If an employee works for the American Cancer Society or as a perfume salesperson, it might make sense to have a ban that covers even off-duty smoking. Otherwise, such a ban seems intrusive, Hastings said.
"We would not recommend that anyone take an action against or single out someone for lifestyle choice," Hastings said. "It usually doesn't work out really well."
Taken to the extreme, such lifestyle policies could end up prohibiting workers from eating junk food or watching too much television, opponents say.
Attorneys such as Blickman said such policies might be legal but could open an employer to a discrimination lawsuit.
Banning illegal drug use, however, is perfectly acceptable because such activity is a crime, HR professionals said.
But testing for cigarette use, even in states where employers are allowed to impose off-duty bans, is a questionable practice, said Steve Wassman, account manager with the Angott Search Group in Detroit.
"I think it's a decidedly gray area," he said. "I think what's wild about it is the proverbial slippery slope. Where could it lead?"
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In recent years this message has begun to appear at the end of job descriptions in many different fields. Except for the closing clause, some of these positions seemed perfect for a current smoker. The smoker may feel such hiring practices are discriminatory and feel great resentment toward the prospective employer.
In fact, some companies are now implementing no smoking rules for current employees. Where once the smoker was able to smoke at his or her desk without a hassle, now they must go to designated areas. And in some cases, they may not be able to smoke at all for eight hours a day due to total bans on smoking. Even though an employer may face animosity from such an anti-smoking policy from existing employees, prospective applicants, and even some clients, the practice is gaining popularity in the business community.
Why would management be in favor of such restrictions on smokers? Because a smoking employee is a financial liability. Estimates of the additional costs of an average smoking employee range from several hundred to several thousands of dollars per year. Multiplied by several employees, smoking may end up costing an employer tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Smokers cost more due to increased medical costs, higher insurance premiums, decreased productivity, more illnesses, and more accidents. Besides this, employee morale becomes affected when the second hand smoke issue surfaces. All in all, the economical and logistical burden placed on an employer due to employee smoking is substantial.
It used to be that all a smoker had to worry about were the crippling and deadly effects of smoking. Then the social stigma became a major concern. But now he must also consider the professional ramifications of smoking. After all, if he can't find work, it will become increasingly difficult to afford a several hundred dollar a year addiction to cigarettes.
Being a smoker can limit your potential for physical, mental, social, professional and economic growth. Today, being personally and professionally successful is a difficult venture. All smoking will do is further complicate an already overly complicated situation. Besides this, the physical assault of smoking will affect your health and may eventually cost you your life. Is smoking worth all these risks? If you don't think so then - NEVER TAKE ANOTHER PUFF!
© Joel Spitzer 1986, 2000
Page last updated by Joel Spitzer on August 25, 2003