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Up in Smoke: America’s Tobacco Use Trends are Burning Up Employment Prospects for Low Wage Earners

June 23rd, 2017 by David Minces

The inverse correlation between smoking and income

While smoking has been declining since the 1960s, it has not declined at the same rate for everyone.  Between 1966 and 2015, the population of college degree holders who smoked dropped by 83%.  Meanwhile, the decline for high school graduate smokers was only 52%.  Even worse, the decrease in the smoking population for those who had not completed high school was under 40%, or less than one-half of the decrease for college degree holders.  Smoking is yet another wedge in the deepening class divide that impacts America as a whole.  Many people turn to smoking when they feel stressed.  Thus, it is not surprising that low income Americans are the most likely to smoke.  The stress of unemployment and low wages adds fuel to the fire that lights up their cigarettes.  In the meantime, the tobacco industry has capitalized on capturing the poorer demographic.  Their advertising targets the low income market.  All this creates a vicious cycle of smoking.  Financial hardship leads to smoking, and smoker status bars people from many jobs.  With that in mind, we must turn our attention to the lack of smoker protections here in the Lone Star State.  Texas is one of the few states that does not have laws protecting employees’ off-duty activities like smoking.  Texan employers can legally decline to hire smokers, as they are not considered a protected class.  Would adopting protections for employees who smoke benefit the lower income brackets and Texas as a whole?

Nicotine addiction is not considered a disability

Many of those who are addicted to nicotine would consider their addiction to be a disability.  After all, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects alcoholism and other substance addictions.  Thus, it is within reason to expect accommodations for nicotine addicts, such as designated smoking areas or smoking breaks.  Smokers may, at least, expect protections from discrimination because of their smoking habit.  Yet, employers do not have to provide any of those services.  Federal court cases such as Brashear v. Simms have found that nicotine addiction is not protected by the ADA.  In fact, the ADA may further hinder smoking in the workplace.  Those with disabilities such as asthma and allergies may need their workplace to be completely smoke free.  This forces employers who may otherwise be content with having smokers in the workplace to avoid hiring them.

Legal discrimination against smokers

Under Texas’ employment laws, employers do not have to accommodate for smokers.  Employers do not have to give employees smoking breaks or provide smoking areas.  Traces of tobacco including tobacco smell can be enough to warrant termination.  In fact, employers are even allowed to say that employees are not allowed to smoke, on-duty or off-duty.  For the most part, as long as employers have clear written policies on tobacco use, they are in the clear.

The majority of states are not as employer-friendly as Texas with regards to smoking, but discrimination against smokers exists even in the most employer-restrictive states.  Most nonprofits and healthcare companies are exempt from smoker protections.

Should we do more to protect smokers from adverse employment actions?

Many believe that Texas should join 29 other states and the District of Columbia and make laws protecting off-duty activities such as smoking.  Lack of off-duty protections for employees allows employers to infringe upon employee privacy.  Anti-smoking laws disproportionately harm the poor, who are more likely to smoke.  This may contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty and diminished health.

On the other hand, laws protecting smokers would come at the expense of employer rights.  These rights are important to many in Texas, an at-will employment state.  Smoking makes employees less healthy.  When employees take too many sick days, this harms a business’s bottom line.  Companies that offer health insurance also have to pay higher premiums for smokers.  This is because health insurance companies tend to charge smokers more than nonsmokers.  Smoker protections may even harm nicotine addicts in the long run.  Without economic pressures, smokers may not have incentive to quit.

The future of smoking

Amendments to the ADA to protect nicotine addiction have been proposed.  Though these proposals have existed for a decade, they still do not seem close to passing.

There are two opposing arguments to this issue.  If we protect smokers from employment discrimination, they could experience lower levels of unemployment and poverty and would be more likely to kick the habit. Or, if we continue to allow employers to discriminate based on smoking status, smokers could be incentivized to quit to get employment. What are your thoughts on smoking restrictions in the workplace? Opening a dialogue about tobacco use and the disproportionate impact it has on the country’s lower wage earners is a step towards a healthier, wealthier, smoke-free America.

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