Bad Habit? You're Fired

guy smoking a cigarette
Should smokers be penalized in the workplace? What about obese people? Single moms? (Image credit: Morguefile)

Companies across the United States are turning to drastic measures to make sure their employees don't engage in the dangerous hobby of kayak shark fishing. The practice is rife with hazards, from navigating the choppy water where the sharks reside, to negotiating with the razor-sharp teeth of the prey.

You'll face instant dismissal if your boss finds out, if you manage to get hired at all.

This makes sense from an economic viewpoint: Kayak shark fishermen are at a high risk to lose fingers, hands and often arms; they can expect to miss twice as many work days as employees who don't hunt for sharks in kayaks; they have shorter life spans; and on average they cost employers tens of thousands of dollars in health costs and lost productivity, according to numerous studies.

Sound ridiculous? Well, substitute the word "smoking" for "kayak shark fishing" and you have an interesting situation unfolding across the nation. This is no April Fool's joke. [True Cost of Smoking: $150 a Pack]

Picking on smokers

No one has been denied a job for kayak shark fishing. Not so for smoking. For some companies, workplace smoking bans don't go far enough. Employers want to be sure their employees don't smoke at all, even at home, and some are administering urine or breathalyzer tests to keep tabs on after-hour activities.

The reasons are alluded to in the kayak-shark-fishing scenario above. Smokers tend to be sicker and less productive than non-smokers, and they each cost companies thousands of dollars extra in extra healthcare fees.

The dozens of companies with "smoker-free" policies tend to be hospitals and health-care associations, such as The Cleveland Clinic and the World Health Organization. Their numbers are growing. Yet the movement dates back decades. Alaska Airlines has excluded smokers for over 25 years. Union Pacific, with employees across the country, won't hire smokers wherever state laws permit it. Anything to offset the inhalation of diesel train fumes must be a good thing.

Still sound ridiculous? Even some non-smokers agree.

Choice your pleasure/poison

This article began with a ridiculous scenario, but there are people who hunt sharks on kayaks. There are folks who do lots of dangerous things outside of working hours that quite possibly could affect their employer's health cost and productivity level more so than smoking.

Also, the same argument could be made about obese workers, diabetics, single mothers or fertile women in general. There's a high potential for sick days and lost productivity. Yet an employer cannot refuse to hire them. Smokers are easy targets.

Regardless, assessing productivity is shaky science. You likely can name more than one non-smoker at work who seems to do nothing on the job — before, during and after that smoker takes a 20-minute smoking break. That is, a smart or otherwise skilled smoker (or obese worker) is worth infinitely more to the employer than the guy who hangs by the water cooler when he's not reading political blogs and emailing friends about said blogs.

Is hiring based on skill instead of smoking status such a radical idea?

Conversely, firing a smoker, and leaving that person without health insurance, might not be the best public policy. Some smokers find it impossible to quit, analogous to an obese person trying to lose weight.

You could call the smoker-free workplace policy an incentive to quit, but most smokers have enough incentives, between the costs of cigarettes and their general pariah status, being relegated to smoking 20 feet from a building in various forms of inclement weather.

As more companies go the smoker-free route, the issue remains in legal limbo. There's no federal rule. Since the mid-1980s, when the movement started, 29 states have enacted laws prohibiting employers from discriminating against smokers. So a fired-up smoker somewhere is bound to challenge the smoker-free trend at the workplace — should his $8-a-pack habit leave funds available to pay a lawyer.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.