Focus on workers quitting, not a hiring ban

The idea that businesses should not hire tobacco users may look good on paper, but it doesn’t provide a solution to the larger issue: ending addiction to a deadly substance.

A Jan. 12 article in The Tennessean, “More employers refuse to hire tobacco users,” reported on the growing trend of companies, especially among hospitals, refusing to hire individuals who use tobacco. The story mentioned the Cookeville Regional Medical Center considering such a policy, but deciding against it. The only Tennessee-based hospital that does have a prospective employee no-smoking policy is at Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga. A hospital spokesman stated that the ban was about setting an example of a “healthier community” rather than cutting medical expenses related to employees who smoke.

No question, the hospital deserves credit for promoting a vision of a healthy community, and certainly, such attitudes among employers can be found across the state. Wellness programs abound in companies big and small throughout Tennessee, all of which serve to encourage workers to accept responsibility for their own health.

Individual corporate policy aside, nothing has been more important in raising the awareness of workplace wellness, at least as far as tobacco is concerned, as the landmark Tennessee Non-Smokers Protection Act. The law went into effect in October 2007 and created smoke-free environments in offices and businesses and bars and restaurants that allow patrons under age 21. The smoke-free working environment has greatly contributed to the decline of adult smokers in Tennessee, nearly 27 percent five years ago and now hovering around 23 percent.

There’s still work to be done, although I believe that solving the dilemma lies in helping current employees quit rather than not hiring tobacco users in the first place. As Boston University professor Michael Siegel stated in the article, the hiring restrictions “punish smokers rather than helping them quit.”

That’s precisely why it is time for employers to embrace smoking-cessation programs in their workplaces. A 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 70 percent of the current adult smoking population wants to quit, and more than half have tried to end their tobacco addiction in the past year. But they need help.

Help comes in a lot of ways: Make sure health insurance policies cover the FDA-approved, over-the-counter and prescription medication cessation products; develop a benefit that provides partial funding for a local health club or yoga class; and ensure that employees have access to group and/or one-on-one cessation counseling.

Larger companies should consider contacting the American Lung Association about developing a series of on-site “Freedom from Smoking” classes in the workplace.

I believe a company’s tobacco policy must recognize that we’re dealing with tobacco dependency, a powerful addiction that threatens the health of the individual and, yes, contributes to rising health-care costs in Tennessee. We don’t solve this by being exclusionary; we solve this tobacco crisis by developing proven, benevolent cessation programs that help Tennesseans live a healthier, better life.
By Aaron Milstone, M.D., specializes in pulmonary and sleep medicine at Williamson Medical Center in Franklin.

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