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Would You Hire A Smoker?

Anti-smoking discriminationFollowing some high-profile cases in the US, the question of discriminating against candidates who smoke is fast becoming an issue in most countries.

We’ve banned smoking in the workplace and in most public areas. Now Australian employers are asking “Can I refuse to hire someone because they smoke?


The reason they’re asking is because not hiring someone on the grounds that you don’t like smokers could be construed as discrimination, for which there are stiff penalties.But apparently it’s not considered discrimination in the US any more. It has been tested in the courts in the past, using the argument that smokers are addicts and therefore have a handicap and can’t be discriminated against (just as heroin addicts enjoy handicapped status in the US), but this was found not to be a valid argument.

US anti-smoking groups argue that, while someone’s age, sex, race, religion or handicap is not of their own making and should therefore not be discriminated against, smokers choose to smoke and could give up at any time if they really had to.

Therefore refusing to hire a smoker is not discrimination and is well within an employer’s rights.

More and more US employers are now only hiring those who don’t smoke at work or at home and some are even conducting random urine tests on their employees to detect traces of nicotine, much like random alcohol or drug testing.

US employers argue that smoking costs them $200 billion a year in lost productivity and medical expenses. Given that health insurance is obtained through your employer in the US, this may very well be true. Smoking-related illnesses mean employers pay higher insurance premiums and get lower productivity from their smoking employees.

But in Australia, our health insurance is not linked to our employment, so employers can’t really make the same argument, only that, like any other non-smoking tax payer, their taxes are being spent on public health care for a self-inflicted illness.

Productivity Issues

The argument concerning loss of productivity however, does have relevance here. Statistics show that the average Australian smoker takes more days off than a non-smoker and, while at work, loses at least 30 minutes out of each day while smoking. This translates into an $800 million a year loss for Australian business.

Smoking costs Australian businesses $800M each year in lost productivity!

With employees who smoke taking at least 30 minutes each day “out of the office”, could this ultimately result in non-smoking employees demanding additional annual leave in lieu of the time they don’t spend on smoke breaks?

But is excluding smokers from the workforce going too far? What about an individual’s civil liberties? As long as tobacco remains legal, it seems hypocritical to be persecuting those who use it.

Where do you draw the line?

Should you exclude any employee whose lifestyle is likely to mean greater absenteeism, such as drinkers, those with kids, those who are overweight and those who ride motorcycles or engage in extreme sports?

There is something distinctly ‘un-Australian’ about a boss telling his workers what they can and can’t do in their own time and perhaps this is partly why we don’t seem to be in a great hurry to go down the US path.

But if Australian employers aren’t yet calling for a smoke-free workforce, they’re certainly pushing for a smoke-free workplace.

Designated smoking areas are becoming smaller and further away from buildings, which means, ironically, that smokers must travel further to reach them, leading to increased time away from their desks.

These stricter measures are partly in response to complaints from non-smoking fellow employees, who see smokers as less productive than themselves, yet tolerated by management.

Certainly, employers have every right to ban smoking from the workplace and restrict smoke breaks to designated break times and smokers should do their best to limit or curtail their smoking at work (most are trying to give up, after all).

But whether Australian employers take that next step and start hiring only non-smokers will come down to whether Australian law comes to view tobacco addiction as a disability or not.

It has yet to be tested here in the courts and just because hiring non-smokers has been given the green light in the US does not automatically mean it will be here.

While it is not deemed illegal to discriminate in employment against someone addicted to a prohibited drug, we have no law relating to addiction to legal drugs such as tobacco.

And just because there is no law covering an issue, should it be deemed lawful? Surely the matter should be tested in court and legislation introduced to clarify everyone’s rights.

In the meantime, Australian employers who wish to advertise for ‘non-smokers only’ are free to do so, but they should bear in mind that they will be excluding more than 10% of the population and a lot of good candidates in the process.

Alternatively, employers should be prepared to have a stash of breath freshening mints available to offer any candidates who have clearly squeezed in one last cigarette between getting out of their car and walking into their interview.

Michael Overell

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. Previously with McKinsey. Passionate about startups, health and technology. Surf when I can; ride a bike most days. Follow me @mboverell.

  • Jarrod

    I’m an employer and asthmatic. Recently my asthma has worsened and being around somebody smoking, or even somebody who has recently been smoking, and cause asthma symptoms, not to mention the stink and discomfort. So I would never hire a smoker for that reason, not to mention the long breaks.

    • Hi Jarrod – thanks for sharing. It’s a tricky balance, I can understand where you’re coming from.

  • Chris

    Yes, whatever someone does in their free time is their business. We say this because we assume it doesn’t effect us. But in this case it certainly does. Whenever I step out of my building I have to hold my breath to avoid second hand smoke. I’m not keen to get cancer thank you very much. Why should non-smokers have to sacrifice their health against their will. That doesn’t seem fair to me. If there was a way someone could smoke and it didn’t effect me and I didn’t smell it then I honestly couldn’t care less (with the exception of the insurance issue). BTW, the adult smoking rate is around 16% for the Aus, population and much higher in first generation Aussies. Good article though :-), good to know what an employers rights are.

  • Diane

    WELL LOCK YA SELF UP IN A BUBBLE AND MAINTAIN LIVING THAT WAY !!! It is none of your business what people do. If you have asthma keep your inhaler around you. If you don’t like the smell don’t go in the direction of the smoke, pick another route. I mean, I am not a smoker, but still if somebody wants to smoke they should be able to. I do not see a big issue with people that drink and act stupidly. And both things are consumed by choice and neither one are illegal. So . . .

  • Rick Ballan

    As an actual scientist I’m telling you that there is no science behind passive smoking. It would take about 25,000,000 years to get lung cancer via passive smoke. By contrast, Gina Reinhard has made billions selling coal to China where parts now resemble Dickensian London. One aeroplane landing gives off emissions per cubic meter equivalent to about 3,000, 000 smokers in a tiny room. The air used to be recycled once every five minutes in a plane and now it’s every fifteen. So the decision was based on profit not concern. No, the motives behind this anti smoking campaign are ideological. The simple truth of the matter is that it does not fit into the self serving narrative of the neoliberal puritans, the mistaken belief that selfish citizens add up to some “greater good”. And this has its roots in the fanatical branch of Protestantism known as Calvinism where wealth is seen as a measure of God’s grace and the fulfillment of one’s “manifest destiny”. Having zero understanding of psychology, philosophy, the arts or real science, they have zero understanding of self sacrifice or Dionysian inversion. Being consummate bores they then project this onto the world around them and attempt to hijack science to justify their irrational beliefs. What “stinks” is superficial vanity and empty materialism.

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