Want a job? Kick the habit
Montco considers a no-smoker hiring rule.

Inquirer Staff Writers

Already facing exile from Philadelphia bars and Atlantic City casinos, smokers in Montgomery County may lose their chance at public employment.

County Commissioners Chairman James Matthews said yesterday he was exploring a new policy to reduce health-care costs by refusing to hire smokers for county government jobs.

"If we can cut down the cost by not hiring smokers, let's do it," said Matthews, who quit smoking two years ago. "This is not about taking away anything from anybody."

As if smokers didn't have enough to worry about. In Philadelphia, City Council is considering an ordinance to ban smoking in restaurants, mirroring New York City's 2003 ordinance. A proposal to ban public smoking is also gaining momentum in the New Jersey Legislature.

Currently employed smokers would not suffer under Matthews' vision, which could become reality next year. New employees would have to indicate on their application that they don't smoke. Otherwise, they wouldn't be considered.

No other county in the United States has seriously considered such a policy, according to the National Association of Counties.

The concept is inspired by a Michigan health-care company's decision to prohibit smoking among all its employees.

Weyco Inc., an Okemos, Mich., benefits administrator, introduced a policy Jan. 1 that forbade its 200 employees from using tobacco products anywhere. It also introduced random nicotine testing.

At the same time, also in Michigan, Kalamazoo Valley Community College said it would not hire smokers or promote part-time employees who smoke to full-time positions.

College spokesman Michael Collins said the self-insured public institution expects to save money by avoiding the basic health problems smokers face.

"Our position is that every dollar we save from these health-care premiums is a dollar we can use to educate our students," Collins said.

The college won't test its employees. Neither would Montgomery County, said Matthews, assuming that most nonsmoking adults would not pick up the habit after they're hired.

Matthews has asked the county's benefits consultant, Cleveland-based Century Business and Insurance Services Inc., to examine the issue.

"It's very forward-thinking on their part," said Bruce Walter, a senior vice president for Century in Plymouth Meeting. "It's them thinking how can we control our health-care costs, not this year or the next, but 20 to 25 years down the road."

A study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using statistics from 1999, said smoking-attributable illnesses cost the economy $3,383 per worker in lost productivity and excess medical expenses.

Montgomery County pays premiums to its insurer, Independence Blue Cross, based on employees' use of medical services. Thus, the county would save money when nonsmoking employees aged without falling victim to cigarette-related illnesses.

Such measures against working smokers have already stirred a national debate, animating civil libertarians and inspiring a bill in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Dan Surra (D., Elk County) said he was drafting legislation that would forbid employers from firing workers because they smoke. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have "lifestyle laws," which prevent employers from controlling their employees' legal activity outside work.

Surra said he would love to extend his bill to include prospective employees, but he didn't think it would pass.

"I think it's a scary road to go down," said Surra. "As long as it's legal activity, that's where I draw the line."

Civil rights groups agreed.

"It's really a huge impingement on worker privacy," said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, a spin-off of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gruber said it is reasonable for companies to protect worker safety by enacting no-smoking policies at the job.

He wondered, however, whether employees would have to reveal hoagie-eating, skydiving, or risky sexual behaviors.

"There's very little that we do that doesn't affect our health in some way," Gruber said.

Human-resources professionals are also taking notice.

"There are definitely people out there wondering if they can legally hire people who don't smoke," said Paula Gill, a human-resources director who runs a hotline for the MidAtlantic Employers Association.

The association, based in Valley Forge, represents 700 employers in the city, suburbs, New Jersey and Delaware. On Wednesday, Gill advised one business that it would be fine to say "no smokers" in a help-wanted advertisement.

Part of the push for these restrictions comes as health-insurance companies get more sophisticated in their analysis of claims data, said insurance broker Ivy Silver, principal of Commonwealth Consulting Group Inc. in Jenkintown.

For example, health insurers can now use formulas to determine that an employee with an unusual number of bronchitis episodes and high blood sugar is a likely smoker who therefore has a higher chance of developing diabetes in a year. That knowledge allows them to forecast how much more it would cost to insure that one person.

And it's not only health insurance that's affected, she said. Smoking also has an impact on employer-paid life and disability insurance. "These are still costs to the employer."

In New Jersey, employers are not allowed to regulate off-duty use of tobacco, alcohol and other lawful products, except for a rational basis closely related to the company's mission, Gruber said. For example, an antismoking lobbying group could insist that employees not smoke, but a hospital could not.

Harry Mobley, who represents about 600 county employees for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Montgomery County would have to negotiate any policy covering its current of future workers.

And Walter, the county's consultant, said he would like to see the legal issues elsewhere play out - perhaps as long as five years - so the county doesn't become embroiled in legal battles.

Matthews said he sees the hurdles ahead and added that the county was not likely to rush into a new policy. He attributed his determination to local antismoking activist Frank Romano, who fought to get the courthouse smoke-free.

"It gets a little clumsy," he said. "But it's still in dialogue."