Missouri Hospitals Just Say No to Hiring Smokers

June 20, 2011

It’s long been known that having a smoking habit can affect what you pay for life insurance or health insurance, but starting next month, it will also mean you can’t get a job at seven of the hospitals in and around St. Louis, Missouri.

Beginning in July, 2011, applicants to work at SSM Health Care will be asked if they have used tobacco products in the last six months, and those who answer yes will be removed from consideration, a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said.

Chris Sutton, a spokesperson with SSM explained, “As an organization that provides health care, we want to encourage our employees to take better care of themselves and set good examples for our patients.” Sutton said that since having, “…healthier employees does mean lower health care costs…” hospitals will save money.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every smoker costs a corporation about $3,400 a year in lost productivity and health care costs.

SSM facilities have all been smoke-free since 2004, and current employees who smoke won’t be required to adhere to the non-smoking policy when they’re off duty.

While this new policy only applies to the SSM hospitals in Missouri, there are about 6,000 companies around the country that have also stopped hiring smokers, says the New Jersey-based National Workrights Institute, and organization dedicated to workers’ rights issues. While this practice seems discriminatory, it’s allowed under Missouri state law for certain employers, including health care providers. Officials of SSM plan to lobby for similar legislation in Illinois, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, where they operate other facilities.

Workers’ rights groups maintain that the shift to a smoke-free work force could lead to similar bans on other unhealthy-but-still-legal behaviors like eating fast food and drinking alcohol. Some are also concerned that anti-smoking policies such as the one espoused by SSM could be punishing for low-paid employees like cafeteria workers and janitors who are addicted to nicotine.

Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health put it this way: “If enough of these companies adopt these policies and it really becomes difficult for smokers to find jobs, there are going to be consequences. Unemployment is also bad for health.”

Health care providers are at the front of the trend away from employing people who smoke. The Cleveland Clinic stopped hiring smokers four years ago, and since then, hospitals in Texas, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Georgia and Florida have done the same.

Another Missouri hospital, St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau also has a policy against hiring smokers. Explains hospital chief executive Steve Bjelich, “We felt it was unfair for employees who maintained healthy lifestyles to have to subsidize those who do not. Essentially that’s what happens.”