Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man Need Not Apply

If you smoke tobacco, you’re not going to be hired for a job by the Baylor Health Care System.  For that matter, you don’t need to waste time filling out an employment application form at the Cleveland Clinic either.  Both healthcare providers have made it clear that they will not accept smokers within their respective workforces.

In its editorial today, USA Today says this type of policy is wrong.  The newspaper argues that employers like Baylor CEO Joel Allison and Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove (both members of the Healthcare Leadership Council) have every right to offer smoking cessation programs to their employees and even to make smokers pay more out of pocket for their workplace-provided health insurance.  But, USA Today says, it is improper to penalize a job applicant for practicing a legal habit on their own time.

According to the newspaper’s editorial, “A bit further down (this) road lies hiring based on genetics.  In that world, inheriting that shows a predisposition to a costly disease could cost you a job.”

USA Today is wrong, and not just because of its nonsensical comparison of a voluntary activity like smoking to an individual’s genetic makeup.

Today’s healthcare providers are expected not only to provide excellent care for the patients, but also to encourage wellness, disease prevention and healthy behaviors among all individuals they have the ability to influence.  As Dr. Paul Terpeluk of the Cleveland Clinic said in his “opposing view” in USA Today, “We have a unique perspective on the burden of chronic disease.  We not only treat disease, but we also play a vital role in educating patients and employees about lifestyle choices.  It is only right to practice what we preach.”

There’s also a significant economic issue involved here.  When an employer, particularly one who provides health coverage, hires an individual, they are assuming the burden of his or her healthcare costs.  An individual may smoke on their own time, but the employer winds up footing much of the bill for the chronic illnesses associated with smoking.  Should an employer be allowed to consider the increased health costs, absenteeism and loss of productivity associated with a voluntary, unhealthy behavior like smoking?  It’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t.

And in an environment in which five percent of the population is responsible for 50 percent of our healthcare costs, this is a concern that goes well beyond Baylor and the Cleveland Clinic.

I know both Joel Allison and Toby Cosgrove.  They are both gentlemen who have dedicated their lives and careers to providing better health to their fellow citizens.  Their no-smoking policies are neither mean-spirited nor discriminatory.  Rather, they are intended to make a vitally-needed statement about wellness and healthy living both within and outside the confines of their respective institutions.