There’s smoke-free and then there’s smoker-free.
When the New Year dawns, the Massachusetts Hospital Association will no longer hire people who use tobacco, a decision a Boston University public health specialist calls unfair.
The trade organization already bans tobacco at its Burlington headquarters, but CEO Lynn Nicholas said the time has come to go further.
“We are in the health business. We work with our hospitals to help them have smoke-free campuses,” she said in an interview today about the move, which was first reported by WBUR. “I’m in a good position to take an even bolder step than that . ... We just aren’t going to welcome users of tobacco inside our workforce.”
The MHA employs 45 people, a small number of whom do smoke, Nicholas said. They were encouraged to quit and offered help while the new policy was discussed over the past several months, she said. After January 1, the new rule will rely on the honor system for enforcement.
There is a precedent for the ban in Massachusetts. Since 1997, police and fire departments have followed a policy of not hiring smokers that was part of a change in pension rules.
“Our hospitals are filled with patients who are there directly or indirectly because of tobacco use,” Nicholas said. “It is the leading cause of preventable death in the US and it’s also very costly in terms of not only health care costs but also lost productivity.”
Nicholas said she also has a personal reason. She lost a “big chunk” of her family to smoking, including her father, who died of lung cancer at age 65 although he quit smoking at 40. She believes that narrowing the number of places where people can smoke -- or be smokers -- will cut down on smoking in the future.
Dr. Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health, a longtime advocate of smoke-free policies, disagrees with the hospital group’s approach. He says the appropriate way to handle workplace health issues is to help people work on their behaviors, by offering programs to quit smoking or exercise more, for example.
The hospital association policy “goes beyond the idea of corporate wellness to say ‘We are simply going to cleanse the workforce of anyone who has a particular unhealthy behavior,’ “ Siegel said. “It’s very selective, saying ‘We’re going to cleanse our workforce of smokers but not people who make other poor health decisions.’ "
The same reasoning behind the new employment policy could exclude people who eat poorly, skip seat belts, or use tanning salons, Siegel said.
“I've spent most of my career working to promote smoke-free workplaces. This goes beyond affecting other people” or protecting them from themselves, he said. “Now they’re not forcing them to quit. They’re saying, ‘We don’t even want them.’ ”
About white coat notes
|White Coat Notes covers the latest from the health care industry, hospitals, doctors offices, labs, insurers, and the corridors of government. Chelsea Conaboy previously covered health care for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Write her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cconaboy.|
Gideon Gil, Health and Science Editor
Elizabeth Comeau, Senior Health Producer