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Worker smoking rights: Up in smoke?

By Jay MacDonald · Bankrate.com
Friday, April 20, 2012
Posted: 10 am ET

Vince Chasteen has been a smoker for 41 years and worked for the city of Fort Worth, Texas, for 30. He doesn't like the smell of talk down the hall in human resources that could force him and other city-employed smokers to choose between their habit and their job.

"I think it's an infringement on the public's rights to live their life the way they choose to," Chasteen, president of the city's employee association, told local TV affiliate WFAA.

This week, Fort Worth, Texas, became the first major municipality to officially consider a ban on tobacco use by city employees. No decision is expected until after May 8, when HR is scheduled to submit its report to the City Council.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking and secondhand smoke cost the U.S. on average a staggering $193 billion annually. It's estimated that each employee who smokes costs their employer more than $11,000 per year in additional health care costs, disability payments and time lost from work.

Corporate employers have been taking steps recently to discourage workforce smoking in an attempt to shave their health insurance costs. But rather than ban tobacco outright, employers have opted to shift more costs onto their employees who smoke by adding a surcharge to the higher premiums that health insurance companies already charge tobacco users.

The New York Times estimates that the number of employers who charge smokers extra for health insurance has doubled in the past two years.

Employers used to tread lightly back when smoking was considered a "health status" for fear of being charged with discrimination under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. But since the feds reclassified smoking as a "behavior," smokers' rights have been eroding. The Affordable Care Act opens the door for employers to impose up to a 50 percent surcharge on employees who smoke, beginning in 2014.

Fort Worth city leaders were reportedly intrigued by Baylor Healthcare Systems, one of the state's largest employers, which stopped hiring smokers altogether in January. Not everyone is pleased with the development however.

"These policies represent employment discrimination," says Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health. "It's a very dangerous precedent."

It's hard to miss the irony that the iconic Marlboro man should meet his OK Corral moment in "Cowtown," the very heart of working-class cowboy country.

What are your thoughts? Should a municipality you support with your tax dollars have the right to ban smokers?

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1 Comment
SD
April 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I have to say I'm conflicted. I can empathize with the whole "freedom" argument, and goodness knows the government has it's moments of trying too hard to protect people from themselves. However, I'm also very frustrated when walking down the crowded streets of Chicago and I have to inhale the smoke of someone ahead of me, and I can't really move out of the way, so I'm forced to be in their trail...not fun. If anything, Fort Worth (near my hometown Dallas) is better equipped to handle smokers because there's more space for the smoke to dissipate in.