A Massachusetts man has been fired from his job for failing a drug test. Well, okay, so that doesn’t sound very newsy, but what if the drug they found was a legal one? And what if he never used that legal drug at work? Scratching your head yet? The man was fired for having nicotine in his system. Not for smoking on the job, not for missing work to smoke, not even for missing work for some smoking-related illness, he was fired because his bloodstream contained nicotine. Period.
Excuse me, but I have a teensy problem with that. Sure, I know that smoking is very bad for you, and I know that it kills, costs the country millions each year, and is generally not the more pleasant of our legal bad habits. But it IS legal. Furthermore, the man, it turns out, had been trying to cut back on his smoking and had dropped from smoking a pack a day to five to six cigarettes per day, and to help him with his quest, he purchased (legally and without a prescription) nicotine gum. Which he chewed on the way to the drug test. Sigh.
Forget for a moment that he was chewing the nicotine gum. Even if he hadn’t been trying to quit, he was still fired for having a habit that didn’t interfere with his work, something he did legally and at home. Imagine: you’re sitting at home, have a few friends over, and decide to fire up a (perfectly legal) cigarette to accompany your glass of wine (or beer or eggnog). You go into work the next day for one of those surprise drug tests: And you fail because you have nicotine in your system because you’re a social smoker. You’re fired. What if you’re just at a party and happen to inhale a great deal of secondhand smoke? Can you explain to your boss? Sure, but company policy says that a positive test is a positive test, and yours is a nonsmoking company. Pack up your stuff and hit the pavement; you might cost your boss or insurance company money one day.
How can a company get away with this sort of thing? Well, it’s adopted a “wellness” program that says that its employees cannot smoke cigarettes, anywhere, ever; this qualifies the company for lower insurance premiums. And many companies have adopted this and similar policies. Now, I’m not saying that insurance companies should not charge more for smokers or for pre-existing conditions or whatever, but I am saying that firing someone because they smoke is problematic to me. What’s wrong with it? A great deal, I say.
Let’s take a look at this particular slippery slope: yes, smoking kills a lot of people each year, but many things kill people. For instance, smoking kills 400,000 people in the United States per year, but high cholesterol kills a shockingly large number of people at 300,000 per year (also in the U. S.). How long before companies begin checking for high cholesterol? And what about blood sugar? The global (not national) number of deaths due to high blood sugar is 3.16 million per year. Should people with borderline diabetes or diabetes be denied jobs because of potential health costs and life insurance payouts? HIV and AIDS patients die in the United States in too large numbers each year, should it follow that anyone not using a condom during sex should be fired? Obesity kills, so perhaps we shouldn’t employ people who are obese–and we don’t even need a drug or blood test for this one, a quick visual during the interview will clear that one right up. If an employee begins to look suspiciously large, perhaps we can test for ho ho’s and potato chips?
A few things are at stake here, a few things to think about, right? One, since when does an employer have a right to know what I do in the privacy of my own home or for that matter when I am anywhere that is not at the office or at work? Obviously, if I’m arrested for something, that’s different, that would negatively influence my ability to do my job, but as a law abiding citizen, my time and my life should be my own. Two, this is one of those cases that we really have to think about in terms of the “and when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up”; it may make some sense to fire smokers (at least to some people, if not to me), and if that were in place, it would make MORE sense to extend that to other risky behaviors.
Which leads me to the overlapping third thing to ponder, and though I’ve made light of it above, this really is a slippery slope. Medical costs are outrageous in this country, and insurance is expensive for both companies and individuals, will it really be so long before “unhealthy lifestyles” make one unemployable? And an “unhealthy lifestyle” might be anything from not exercising to eating too much of something to putting oneself in peril by engaging in risky hobbies such as mountain climbing or skiing or sky diving. Extreme? Sure, but if someone had proposed this if you smoke at home you’ll be fired policy fifty years ago, they would have been looked at like they were insane; hell, they may even have been fired.
More on smoking kills: http://uimc.discoveryhospital.com/main.php?t=symptom&p=heart_disease_smoking
U. S. cause of death stats: http://www.the-eggman.com/writings/death_stats.html