Employers crack down on smoking: Some in area hire only nonsmokers because of rising health costs. Urine tests for nicotine scuttle job offers


Cheryl Powell

Nov. 12--It's becoming a lot more problematic to smoke.

A new measure approved by voters statewide last week will ban smoking in most public places, including bars and restaurants, by next month.

But even lighting up at home could have a high price: It could cost smokers a job.

Faced with rising health-care costs, a few employers refuse to hire anyone who smokes.

Cleveland-based Medical Mutual, one of the state's largest health insurance companies, recently started testing new hires for tobacco use.

All prospective employees must submit to a urine test for evidence of nicotine use. (The threshold for detecting nicotine presence is high enough, experts say, that people exposed to secondhand smoke don't risk testing positive.)

Those who flunk are automatically rejected for employment, regardless of their qualifications.

Nationwide, 7 percent of employers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management said they prefer to hire nonsmokers, and 1 percent said they have formal policies against hiring smokers.

As a company that encourages its customers to lead healthy lifestyles, Medical Mutual decided that hiring only nonsmokers sets a good example, said Paula Sauer, vice president of care management. "In keeping with health and wellness being part of our whole philosophy, it made sense," Sauer said.

Employees hired before the hiring ban on smokers went into effect Sept. 1 still can smoke on their own time -- but not on company property. Smoking has been banned at all of Medical Mutual's properties, including its Fairlawn location, since January.

Workers earn discounts

Sauer said workers who quit smoking or embrace other healthy habits, such as exercising or joining a weight-loss program, can earn discounts on their health-insurance premiums.

The company also provides help for workers who want to kick the habit, including free nicotine-replacement patches.

"We're preaching to people that these are the right things to do," Sauer said. "Let's make sure we're supporting them."

In the end, she said, the smoke-free initiatives pay off.

Medical Mutual estimates that it saves $625 annually in medical costs for every worker who quits smoking.

And these days, most employers are looking for ways to control escalating health-care costs.

This year, the average insurance premium increased 7.7 percent, following average hikes of 9.2 percent last year and nearly 14 percent in 2003, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust.

Numerous studies have shown that smokers are at substantially higher risk of a broad range of costly health problems.

The average cost per smoker includes $1,760 in lost productivity and $1,623 in excess medical expenses, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ohio is one of about 20 states that don't have laws protecting workers' rights when it comes to legal, off-duty activities such as smoking, according to the National Workrights Institute, a nonprofit group based in Princeton, N.J.

Jeremy Gruber, the institute's legal director, said hiring practices that discriminate against smokers are unfair. "Some employers are looking for ways of cutting costs that are often at odds with fundamental fairness," Gruber said. "Employers should be making employment decisions based upon job-related factors."

More commonly, companies are barring anyone from smoking on company grounds. The Society for Human Resource Management study found that 20 percent of companies ban smoking at the workplace, both inside and outside.

Hospitals ban smoking

Last week, for example, Summa Health System joined Akron General Health System and Akron Children's Hospital in barring smokers anywhere on hospital property.

And Green-based Diebold is starting a smoke-free-campus policy for all its properties Thursday to coincide with the American Cancer Society's 30th annual Great American Smokeout, a day each year in which the society urges smokers to kick the habit for at least 24 hours.

Since last year, Diebold employees who vow that they don't use tobacco products have been getting a $25 discount per month on their health insurance premiums, said Sharyn Ball, the company's benefits manager.

"We're wanting to incentivize employees for healthier lifestyles," Ball said.

SummaCare is getting "bombarded with requests" from companies for information about workplace wellness initiatives, particularly smoking-cessation programs, said Kevin Cavalier, vice president of sales for employer-based products. "Wellness initiatives in general are picking up steam," he said.

Policies that support efforts to kick the habit or even limit smoking during work time are more appropriate than those that ban off-hours smoking, said Gruber of the National Workrights Institute.

"Certainly, strict controls of smoking at work to counter the effects of secondhand smoke are responsible," he said. "What's unreasonable is to tell employees what they can and cannot do when they go home."

Smoker objects

Jeff Dietrick, a 35-year-old Akron resident, said he doesn't mind stepping outside to smoke when he's in a restaurant or bar, as will soon be required in Ohio with the passage of Issue 5 on Election Day.

But Dietrick, who smokes about half a pack a day, said companies are going too far when they deny people employment just because they smoke.

"To me, that's discriminatory," he said as he puffed a Marlboro Light on a recent afternoon at BW-3 in Akron. "What you do on your own time is your own business. That's not right."

Fellow smoker Lori Fowers, a 26-year-old Cuyahoga Falls resident, agreed. "Just because I smoke doesn't mean I'm not a good worker," she said.

But as long as employers pay the bulk of medical costs, some say they'll continue hiring bans against smokers.

Falls won't hire smokers

Since the city of Cuyahoga Falls started refusing to hire smokers in January 2005, several prospective employees have been denied a job because they flunked the urine test, said Valerie Carr, the city's service director.

Everyone has to be tested before being hired, at a cost to the city of about $40 per test. Those who indicate on their job application that they smoke aren't even considered.

Initially, Carr said, some people complained about the policy.

But now, "we've had very little comment about it," she said. "I think people have just accepted the fact that we're no longer hiring smokers, mainly due to the costs that are associated with them. If we save one cancer case or heart attack, you're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims and hospitalizations and loss of work."