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Call for rethink of trend to bar smokers from jobs

The increasing trend for employers, particularly in the US, to bar smokers from applying for jobs or staying in post should be stopped until the appropriateness of such policies has been properly evaluated, argue experts in an essay published in Tobacco Control.

As of August 2008, 21 US states, 400 US cities, nine Canadian provinces, six Australian states/territories, and 14 other countries, including the UK, had banned smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants.

But in recent years, smokefree workplaces have shifted to "smoker-free workplaces," with some companies even stating "tobacco-free candidates only" in their employment policies.

The World Health Organization has barred smokers from employment since 2005, and the National Cancer Institute encourages the preferential hiring of nonsmokers.

But it's not just health-related organisations who maintain this policy. Weyco Inc, a US employee benefits company, stopped hiring smokers in 2003. It has also made smoking outside work a sackable offence, and recently extended that rule to employees' spouses.

These policies aim to cut cigarette consumption, by promoting the need to quit and by making smoking less socially acceptable, say the authors from the Universities of Washington and Boston.

The evidence backs them up. However, Professor Michael Siegel and colleagues from Boston University's School of Public Health argues that quite apart from infringements of personal privacy and individual rights, smokers who are sacked or forced to resign many not be able to find other work, which in itself could have a seriously detrimental impact on their and their families' health.

Smokers will also be unjustly discriminated against in a way that people who risk their health by drinking or eating too much, and exercising too little, are not, say the authors.

And it may also prompt a shift in thinking about these other behaviours as well, the authors suggest, citing Clarian Health in Indianapolis, which has already pledged to sack employees who smoke, are obese, and whose blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels are unhealthily high.

The authors call for a much wider public health debate, and for proper evaluation of these policies, on the grounds that "the potential unintended side effects … could be far-reaching."

They say the evidence for and against must be carefully weighed up, "to ensure we are addressing the fundamental determinants of tobacco use and reducing related health disparities," they warn.

Online First Tobacco Control

We asked you to tell us what you think of banning smokers from applying for jobs. Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

"This is only the tip of the iceberg. An alliance called The International Coalition Against Prohibition (TICAP) was formed to share ideas and establish a united front regarding the future of efforts aimed at combating corrupt influences within public health. A conference was arranged to take place in conference room at the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. The conference has been cancelled only a week before it was going to occur. Anti-smoking interests opposed to the free ideas being discussed literally conspired to put an end to the conference, by leveling unfounded allegations against the groups involved. The only purpose of the conference was to get like-minded people together so they could share ideas with one another. It appears that the European Union doesn't like this whole "free speech" and "Right to Assemble" idea." - Janie Williams, USA

"Of course smokers shouldn't be banned from jobs. It should be illegal, it is prejudice, pure and simple. We have laws that limit danger to others, why should people have their livelihoods destroyed when there is no risk whatsoever? I didn't realise this was going on. If it is, it's nothing short of bullying, and I'm not a smoker." - Alan Thrower, London

"To bar smokers from jobs is highly discriminatory. Smokers are made lepers of these days. It appears anti-discrimanation laws dont apply to smokers. Next they will discriminate against the obese and those who like a tipple in their own time." - Barney Breet, Manchester