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The smoker-free workplace: the case against
  1. S Chapman
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor Simon Chapman
 School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Building A27, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia;

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I once taunted the chairman of British American Tobacco Australia in a letter to a newspaper because he had let it be known that he did not smoke. I argued “While the male head of a lingerie company would not be expected to “choose” to wear women’s underwear, smoking is a choice open to all. It is scarcely imaginable that the chairman of Ford would drive a Toyota or the head of the Meat Marketing Board would be a vegetarian. Such lack of personal confidence in their products would probably see them not long in their jobs. The tobacco industry does not seem to mind such an irony.”

Some jest that smoking should be compulsory for all tobacco industry executives, but should the reverse ever be made to apply: that employers could choose to insist on smoker-free workplaces? Employers can oblige their staff to wear uniforms and conform to dress codes and address customers with repeated inanities like “not a problem” or sundry company greetings. In several nations, a large majority of workers cannot smoke at work. But should employers be able to insist that a worker cannot be a smoker, even if they only smoke after hours? Smokers have been repeatedly shown to have higher workplace absenteeism than non-smokers. In many workplaces, smokers take additional breaks to smoke outside and there is no evidence that these breaks somehow supercharge their subsequent productivity, causing compensatory boosts. Smoking breaks can also cause deep resentment among non-smokers who see colleagues being “rewarded” for their smoking.


Against this background, talk of policies to allow employers to discriminate against the hiring of smokers is understandable. But is it justifiable? When running a cancer control agency, Nigel Gray introduced policy to not hire smokers, reasoning that smoking employees sent an unacceptable message to the community his agency served.

Because you can often smell smokers, and see their packs bulging from shirt pockets or peeping from handbags, it is reasonable to assume that a clandestine smoker working for a cancer control agency will sooner or later be “outed”. Few smokers smoke in total secret. Their friends and families know they smoke, and know where they work. Word gets around. A smoking cancer control advocate walks the thin ice of public hypocrisy which could conceivably undermine the reputation of their agency. Nigel Gray would presumably have the same understandable reservations in hiring a deeply tanned white person to work in skin cancer education, or mammogram and Pap smear refusniks to spearhead these campaigns.

So I would support Nigel in his policy of not hiring smokers in cancer control. But I am convinced that to extend such a policy to the wider community—into employment situations where smoking was quite irrelevant—would be unethical.

Nigel advances two arguments: employers’ rights to optimise their selection of staff (smokers are likely to take more sick leave and breaks); and enlightened paternalism (“tough love”). The first argument fails because while it is true that smokers as a class are less productive through their absences, many smokers do not take extra sick leave or smoking breaks. By the same logic, employers might just as well refuse to hire younger women because they might get pregnant and take maternity leave, and later take more time off than men to look after sick children.

But what about paternalism? There are some acts where governments decide that the exercise of freewill is so dangerous that individuals should be protected from their poor judgements. Gray’s instances of seat belt and motorcycle crash helmets are good examples. Goodin’s famous essay on the ethics of smoking1 argues that we do not allow someone to knowingly drink a glass of cholera infected water, assuming such behaviour must indicate mental incapacity. Gray argues that his spectre of “quit or reduce your chances of employment” is founded on similar enlightened paternalism. I think the comparisons are questionable.

Seat belt and helmet laws represent trivial intrusions on liberty and cannot be compared with demands to stop smoking, something that many smokers would wish to continue doing. By the same paternalist precepts, employers might consult insurance company premiums on all dangerous leisure activity, draw up a check list and interrogate employees as to whether they engaged in dangerous sports, rode motorcycles, or voted for conservative politics.2,3 Many would find this an odious development that diminished tolerance. There is not much of a step from arguing that smokers should not be employed (in anything but tobacco companies), to arguing that they should be prosecuted for their own good. I demur.