Smoking as a Barrier to Employment: A Close Look at a Surprising Trend

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act prevented an employee or job applicant from being discriminated against because of a person’s religion, nationality, race, sex or color. Additionally, the Age Discrimination Act protects a person from being denied employment for being over the age of 40. However, in recent years, there’s one factor that’s preventing some people from being employed, and it’s not covered under any of the legislation above: Smoking.

A Range of Companies Adopting Non-Smoking Policies

Initially, you may think healthcare would be the industry most likely to refuse to hire employees who smoke. Reasons for doing so may stem from the fact that smoking is widely known to be responsible for some instances of premature death, and if healthcare providers are diligently encouraging patients to practice smoking cessation efforts, yet still continuing to smoke themselves, it’s hard to set a good example. As an article on indicates, some employers who have instituted policies against hiring smokers include the University of Pennsylvania Healthcare System, Alaska Airlines and the Cleveland Clinic. As that shows, the practice of banning smokers is not limited to healthcare.

One Canadian Company Takes Things Much Further

Barring people from smoking while on company time is one thing, but an article from the National Post profiled an Ottawa-based Internet company called Momentous Corporation that’s even more strict. The firm has about 120 employees and one thing that’s common to all of them is they don’t smoke. In one rule that may rightfully cause outsiders to scratch their heads, the company goes even further than not allowing employees to smoke on company premises. They even forbid employees to smoke during off-hours, although it’s not clear how this policy is enforced.

Some Companies Require Employees to Undergo Nicotine Screenings

It’s common practice for employers to enforce mandatory screenings for illegal drugs as a condition of being hired at a new job. However, some companies are also making prospective and current employees go through nicotine screenings. As noted in an article from Market Watch, District General, an insurance firm in Nashville, Tennessee, is one such company. If an employee tests positive for nicotine, he or she must pay a higher health insurance premium.
Xerox and Jacobs Engineering Group, a construction company, are two other examples of employers who practice nicotine testing. However, in those two examples, people get insurance premium discounts for agreeing to be tested, receiving a negative result, or both. At Jacobs Engineering Group, non-smokers can also be rewarded in cash.

Protection in the U.S. is State-Specific

Laws related to smoker’s rights in the United States vary by state, and although more than half of states plus the District of Columbia currently have such protections in place, that number may rise in the near future. As discrimination practices involving smokers have come into the national spotlight, the issue is beginning to become a hot-button topic. Because of that, it’s smart for job seekers, employed persons and human resources representatives to become well-educated about whether umbrella protections for smokers exist in particular states, and if not, whether there are rules in place at particular places of business.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that more than 5 million deaths per year are linked to tobacco. However, as seen in the above examples, disallowing smoking at the workplace is not without challenges, even if the rule is motivated by a desire to promote good health.
Brett Harris is a full-time business blogger. If you’re interested in HR, check out his article on earning a Masters in human resources degrees.