The push to squeeze smokers out of public places is getting stronger, with restaurants and malls moving them out of their buildings. Now some businesses are taking it a step further.
For years, Virginia's Bon Secours hospitals have banned smoking on hospital grounds. Now they are banning smokers entirely, even people who only smoke in the privacy of their own home.
The company is no longer hiring anyone whose urine sample tests positive for nicotine.
Smoke Out Policy
Bon Secours' Employee Well Coordinator Amy Cutter said the change in policy is in keeping with the company's image.
"As a healthcare institution, we believe in supporting good health and being good healthcare models to each other, the patients, and the community," she explained.
Current employees who smoke can still keep their jobs, but are strongly encouraged to quit.
The hospital system, which employs some 12,000 workers, joined the Cleveland Clinic and other healthcare power houses across the country that snuff-out any job applicants who smoke.
That attitude is moving beyond the medical industry.
For instance, Wheeler Interests, a Virginia Beach shopping center company, employs about 35 people. But smokers need not apply.
Jon Wheeler instituted the anti-smoker policy five years ago mainly because smokers wasted valuable work time.
"People would leave the office - five minutes taking down the elevator, five minutes outside smoking, five minutes coming back up on the elevator," Wheeler said.
"Of course when they came back into the office space they smelled like smoke, they were doing that eight, nine, ten times a day," he said.
Better Business Practice
Wheeler realized he couldn't afford to risk driving-away clients.
"We have a lot of shopping centers," he explained. "And when our folks go out into the field, our associates, and they're going to other people's businesses, which is like their homes, they'd walk in, they'd smell like smoke."
Victoria Paul used to be one of those associates. Today she is smoke-free, thanks to the company's policy and the encouragement to quit.
"The delivery was in a supportive fashion," she recalled. "And the pressure was probably brought on by myself, knowing that you're one of the only ones that's doing it."
"It's not good for you, it's not good for the business, it's not good for the company," she said.
Smokers Ban Legal?
But is it legal for an employer to refuse to even consider an applicant simply because they smoke, even if they only do it on their own time?
Yes, according to Regent University Law professor Bruce N. Cameron.
Cameron said smoking is not a federally protected class against discrimination.
"There are a number of federal laws that protect you against discrimination, and they protect you against discrimination in two areas," he explained.
"Basically what we call immutable characteristics, things that you can't change no matter how hard you try, and those areas where the government has decided the employee's choice is more important than the employer's choice," he said.
Those areas include race, age, gender, disability, and religion. However, while federal law doesn't protect smokers, state and local laws can.
A Costly Habit
Smoking is also costly in many ways. Most employers pay employees' health care, and according to federal estimates, a smoker costs about $3,000 a year more than their non-smoking counterpart.
Plus, smoking is the single most preventable cause of death and disease.
Dr. I. Phillip Snider, a physician who specializes in internal medicine within Virginia's Bon Secours Healthcare System, said smoking impacts every organ in the body.
"Heart disease is the number one thing," he said. "Lung disease is very common, it's not necessarily lung cancer, but the breathing, the C-O-P-D, makes asthma a lot worse, makes allergies a lot worse."
"And one thing that's interesting is, it actually increases your chances for bladder cancer and throat cancer and skin cancer, not just the cancer of the lungs," Snider continued.
A Slippery Slope?
So if employers can discriminate against smokers, what's next?
Obesity comes in as the second most preventable cause of disease, and it's costly, as well. An obese employee costs a company, on average, $2,000 a year more than their normal-weight counterpart.
Professor Cameron pointed out that employers can, and do, discriminate in many areas.
"An employer could discriminate on the basis of an employee's weight, they could discriminate on the basis of an employee's exercise routine, they could discriminate on an employee's education," he said. "In fact they do it all the time."
With unemployment already high, the job market is competitive. Those seeking employment may find added incentive to kick a bad habit, knowing it may keep them from getting a job.