South Carolina’s long ties to the tobacco industry might explain why it stepped in to protect smokers from employer discrimination, but it flies in the face of the state’s employ-at-will doctrine and the laissez-faire principles touted by many lawmakers.
So a bill that would repeal a law that dates back to the 1990s and instead leave it to employers to decide whether they want to hire smokers is not all that surprising. It would put the decision back where it belongs – with private employers.
Employers generally don’t have to give a reason for not hiring someone, and smokers are not a protected class under federal law.
But South Carolina is one of 29 states with laws to protect smokers from hiring decisions based on tobacco use away from the workplace. The push for the laws came from the tobacco industry and the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued people should not be punished for a legal act they do on their own time.
The push to repeal smoker-protection laws here and across the country is coming largely from hospital employers, who say they want to lead by example on the subject of smoking.
Although we support private employers rights to set their own hiring practices, within constitutionally accepted limits, those who refuse to hire smokers would do better by their businesses to support healthful behavior. They should hire the best people for the job and then help them quit smoking, or failing that, charge them more for health insurance coverage. Those costs can increase because of resulting health problems from smoking.
They also might be heading down a path they might later regret. Do they want to set standards for employees’ weight because of the potential impact on health care costs and productivity? Do they want to control how much alcohol an employee consumes on his or her own time? Both could affect employees’ health, insurance coverage costs and productivity.
And what do they do if an employee takes up smoking after being hired? Not hiring someone because they smoke falls apart unless you have a system in place to make sure employees don’t start after being hired or start again if they quit smoking to get the job.
None of these questions is easy to answer, but that makes it all the more important that lawmakers – and employers – tread carefully in this arena.