Date: December 12, 2005 Page: A14 Section: Editorial

THIS NEWSPAPER proudly supports all sorts of policies to combat the use of tobacco. We are for smoke-free workplaces, raising the cigarette tax, toughening sanctions on sales to minors, prohibiting sales through vending machines, and protecting state and federal funds for smoking cessation programs from budget cutbacks.

But the World Health Organization's recently announced policy to deny jobs to smokers goes too far. The organization announced on Dec. 1 that it will no longer hire job applicants who smoke or who won't pledge to stop smoking if they get the job. This isn't about smoking at the workplace; WHO's offices have been smoke-free for years. The new ban extends to "smoking, sucking, chewing, or snuffing" any tobacco products even off the clock, even in private life. Smokers already working at the UN agency are exempt; the policy extends only to new employees.

WHO says that its credibility is at stake because it is the world's leading opponent of tobacco use. It explains that it does not want to be seen "normalizing" a behavior that is the major preventable cause of death on the planet. We deplore smoking, too, but there is an important distinction to be made between an action and an individual. The WHO policy conflates the two in a worrisome way, aiming not just at smoking but at smokers.

The legality of WHO's policy may be challenged. Private businesses can set terms and conditions for employment, but 29 states, including New York, have passed `lifestyle discrimination laws" that prohibit companies from extending their reach into private lives. Jeremy Gruber, legal director for the National Workrights Institute at Princeton, says that, in states with such laws, "the use of tobacco products is protected conduct." (WHO's headquarters are in Geneva, but it is an arm of the United Nations, which is in New York.) Gruber correctly says employers should be able to set rules only for private conduct that relates directly to a worker's ability to do the job.

The Founding Fathers were worried about the tyranny of government imposing its will upon citizens, but today's corporations can have nearly as much power as the state. A company such as General Motors might think it important for all its workers to send a unified message by driving American-made cars, but it would make many Americans uneasy if GM required employees to spurn Toyotas and Volvos.

Smokers are modern-day pariahs and an easy target. But just as free speech rights must extend to the most unpopular views, so, too, should unsound but private activities such as smoking, drinking, or eating Twinkies be protected from raids by the lifestyle police.