The city of Dayton’s decision to stop hiring people who use tobacco or nicotine has sparked a debate about if and to what degree employers should be able to restrict employees’ off-the-clock conduct.
The Dayton Daily News first reported that, as of July 15, the city no longer will hire workers who use either substance at any time, which appears to be a rare policy in the public sector.
Multiple anti-smoking and workplace-rights experts could not name another city in the nation that has ceased hiring smokers and nicotine users, and 29 states have “smoker protection” laws, though Ohio is not one of them.
Some public agencies and many private-sector employers, including some local health care systems, have adopted policies prohibiting the hiring of smokers and tobacco and nicotine users.
“Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County supports nicotine- and tobacco-free hiring policies for employers,” said Dan Suffoletto, spokesman with public health. “Public Health has had a nicotine and tobacco free policy in place since 2014.”
Tobacco and nicotine use is harmful and should be discouraged through cessation programs and other means, but it is concerning that a public employer will refuse to employ workers who use a legal product, , according to some groups and individuals, especially because many of the people who will be blocked from employment are at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
“Trying to help someone and encouraging them to quit smoking is one thing, but punishing them for being a smoker — that’s not something government should be doing,” said Ohio Rep. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg).
City of Dayton job candidates hired now will be screened and tested for tobacco and nicotine during the pre-employment screening process.
If they test positive, they will not be hired. The city is giving a little more leniency to applicants who were on a civil service list that was issued and effective before July 15.
Workers hired now also will be subject to nicotine and tobacco testing if the city has “reasonable suspicion” they are using the products.
The city says the new policy promotes a healthier workplace and environment.
“Along with modeling good health and a culture of wellness, the policy is expected to reduce city health costs,” the city said in a statement Wednesday. “The policy will affect only new hires and not existing employees.”
Tobacco and nicotine use reportedly is responsible for a significant share of the city’s health care costs, and the new policy is largely cost-driven, according to some city of Dayton union leaders.
Last year, the Daily News reported that the city’s health insurance claims through the first half of 2018 cost $12.4 million, which was up $2.3 million from the same period in 2017.
The city, which is self-insured, was especially worried about high-dollar claims, which tend to be related to chronic and acute medical problems like cancer and heart conditions.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death and leads to disease and disability and harms nearly every organ system of the body, said Suffoletto.
“Smoking cigarettes kills more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns, and illegal drugs combined,” he said.
Tobacco-free policies benefit workers by helping keep them healthy and reducing their health care costs and the amount of time they miss work because they are sick, Suffoletto said.
About 29 U.S. states that have “smoker protection” laws, including some of Ohio’s direct neighbors: Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Most smokers feel they are discriminated against in public life or employment because of their habit, according to a 2017 Gallup poll.
In 2010, then-state Rep. Stephen Dyer, D-Green, introduced a bill that would have made it illegal for employers to refuse to hire people who use tobacco outside of work.
Dyer said the bill had one hearing and did not gain traction. But he said he drafted the legislation because he heard from constituents who wanted to apply for nurse positions and other non-physician jobs in health care, but some hospitals had stopped hiring smokers.
Dyer said he understands why employers like Dayton want to try to reduce health care costs, and said the underlying issue is rising costs in a broken health care system.
But he and some critics say they fear that nicotine testing is the first step toward employers screening for lifestyle choices and medical conditions that also affect health costs, like alcohol and fast-food consumption, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions.
Dyer said people lower down the economic ladder tend to have higher rates of smoking and tobacco use.
“My other concern was if you go down this road, what’s to stop you from taking everyone’s blood pressure and not hiring folks with hypertension or who are outside the BMI (body mass index),” he said.
People living below the poverty line and people who have lower levels of educational attainment have higher rates of smoking than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Smokers should not be a protected class because that essentially promotes a harmful and costly activity to society, said Ken Fletcher, the advocacy director for the American Lung Association in Ohio.
Smoking is the lead cause of preventable illness and death in Ohio, and the state has above-average smoking rates for adults (21.1 percent), he said.
Every year, 20,000 people in Ohio die from smoking-related causes, and reducing smoking rates would lead to a huge savings for taxpayers and health care and insurance costs, Fletcher said.
“Anything that can convince more Ohioans to quit smoking is good, but these types of policies aren’t what we necessarily advocate for,” he said, referring to Dayton’s new policy. “We want to see smoking cessation treatments, counseling and medications made available to people when they can quit when they are ready to.”
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network supports smoke-free and tobacco-free workplace and public place policies and universal tobacco cessation coverage, but it does not take positions on employment policies based on nicotine use, said Michelle Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the organization.
“Quitting is hard and losing a job based on one’s inability to quit creates larger problems,” she said.
Antani told the Dayton Daily News that government policy should help workers quit smoking when they are ready instead of punish them.
He said the city’s policy seems discriminatory and “quite scary.”
“What’s next?” he said. “What type of lifestyle choice next will they target?”
Staff writers Holly Shively and Kaitlin Schroeder contributed to this story.