Pima County Arizona Considers Refusing Jobs to Smokers and Vapers

In Pima County, Arizona, the Board of Supervisors is debating a drastic move to eliminate smokers from the local government workplace. Later this month, the board will vote on whether to refuse jobs for smokers and put a significant financial penalty on current nicotine users. The suggested policy would take effect next summer and would essentially prevent any smokers from being hired. Even worse, current employees would be charged a 30 percent health insurance surcharge if they use tobacco or nicotine products.

County officials argue that this policy could cut over a million dollars each year from health care costs. “Our taxpayers pay for our health insurance because we are self-insured,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry explained. “Anything we can do to reduce the cost is beneficial.” Around 32 percent of the 2,304 employees in Pima County are tobacco users and the Health Department estimates that around $13.4 million each year goes towards their healthcare.

If the new policy is voted in, then new applicants would be required to bring a doctor’s note or take a drug test to prove they have been free of tobacco and nicotine for one year. Current employees would be faced with an affidavit that says they are nicotine-free. If they sign it, they would receive a $5 healthcare discount each biweekly pay period. But if they are still using tobacco, they would be fined an additional 30 percent for their health insurance. In 2017, that surcharge would be increased to 50 percent.

Huckelberry said that those rules would not apply to people using nicotine replacement therapies like gum or patches, but ecigs would not be allowed. Human Resources Director Allyn Bulzomi said the goal was not to punish smokers. “It’s an attempt to encourage people to be healthy.” If the policy is voted in, the county would instruct supervisors to watch for people that break the policy. “We’re going to to use reasonable suspicion,” Bulzomi explained. “If there is reasonable suspicion we will have a conversation and probably use a test.”

Bulzomi believes the new policy is fair and said that the county would provide smoking cessation programs to help the employees stop smoking. But Dr. Michael Siegel, professor of public health at Boston University, said this policy goes too far. “It’s a form of employment discrimination,” he said. “Discrimination is essentially making employment decisions based on a group to which someone belongs rather than their qualifications for the job.”

Siegel went on to explain how a policy discriminating against smokers could eventually impose similar penalties on employees that are obese or have hereditary medical problems. He called it a “slippery slope” that could lead to dangerously unethical policies in the future.

Do you think that refusing jobs to smokers is a bad idea? Has Pima County taken the smoke-free workplace idea a little too far?

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