Ban the Butts

Yesterday, the Washington Post published a nice article examining the trend of US employers banning, punishing, or even firing employees who use tobacco. Many of these actions apply to off-site smoking — that is, smoking somewhere other than the workplace — and the penalties can be very high. Smokers cost employers money in terms of insurance premiums, sick days and reduced productivity, so employers have a material interest in helping smokers to quit. However, it is less clear that employers have the right to force people to quit, or even if they have the right to do so, that it is a good idea.

During the 1910s, during the run-up to Prohibition, many American employers adopted formal policies to penalize workers (usually by firing) for drinking off the job. Many employers believed that drinkers were inherently bad employees because they engaged in an “immoral” activity or “wasted” their money on alcohol — traits that were thought to create workers who were less productive or dedicated, or in some cases traits that were taken as indicators of low intelligence. There were also perhaps more valid concerns that a drinker would be less attentive on the job or more likely to cause accidents. Henry Ford went so far as to hire Pinkerton detectives to spy on his workers during their time off, and if they were found in a bar, they would be terminated on the spot.

Such excesses seem silly to us when applied to alcohol, but we are headed down a similar path with respect to tobacco, and I think it’s just as silly. Employers should regulate rules about smoking at work, and on work premises — but beyond that they should butt out.

Posted on November 14th, 2007 by Katxena