Will Penn’s Smoker Ban Even Work?

UPHS’s new anti-tobacco policy could make employees healthier. Or it could just make them liars.

Back in October, the University of Pennsylvania held a massive conference extolling the virtues of the class of drugs known as psychedelics. Finally, I thought, an important institution with a rational approach to drugs. But, alas: wrong again.

This week, the University of Pennsylvania Health System announced it’s going after a drug that’s much less intoxicating: tobacco. Well, more specifically, UPHS is going after smokers themselves, having announced this week that they’ll cease hiring tobacco users (that’s cigars, cigarettes and, yes, chew) starting July 1st this year. And that’s all in an effort to “serve as a model of health for the community,” said UPHS’s Judy L. Scheuler in an interview with NBC. That and reducing health care costs.

Currently employed smokers at Penn Health will not be terminated from their positions come July, but rather must disclose their tobacco use and agree to cessation counseling sessions or nicotine replacement therapy. There’s no urine test (guess that’s a little too intrusive), but anyone caught in a lie could be “disciplined.” Further, spouses of employees who are on UPHS’s health insurance will also be scrutinized; they too must disclose if they are tobacco users. The new policy doesn’t apply to university staff and professors. Apparently, that “model of health” thing is only directed toward health workers. And UPHS employees at facilities in New Jersey are protected from the change by NJ state law.

As a privately owned company, UPHS absolutely has the right to institute an anti-tobacco policy, and in Pennsylvania, smokers aren’t protected under any current anti-discrimination laws. They’re not the first to quit hiring smokers either; Abington Health, Roxborough Memorial, Geisinger Health System and others have done the same.

And according to the CDC, tobacco does contribute some 443,000 deaths a year to our national total, along with $193 billion in health-care costs, so the goal doesn’t seem totally outlandish. However, UPHS is doing all this with virtually no data suggesting that the practice reduces health-care costs, with or without adversely affecting the applicant pool.

The real problem, though, is that banning tobacco use—or, frankly, any other form of drug use—is essentially completely arbitrary so long as the employee is performing. I’m not saying cigarettes aren’t bad for you—they are, and I know that firsthand. But that doesn’t mean that other behaviors aren’t as dangerous or ubiquitous as tobacco use, or that employees aren’t partaking in those acts. At what point does the UPHS health worker who’s a bit obese, or regularly has an extra glass of wine with dinner, or leads a sedentary lifestyle, face sanctions from the employer?

Smoking is not the only thing driving up health-care costs—indeed any actions taken in the privacy of one’s own life can do that. Yup, it’s the old “slippery slope” argument again, and, in seizing on the public perception shift toward filthy smokers, UPHS seems to dutifully be starting down the mountain.

Mitigating that slide could be as simple as charging smokers more fees for their health care, which Penn is doing (not for drinkers, the obese, or the sedentary, though). So why, then, does the Philadelphia area’s largest employer need to ban a set of workers from employment during a recession in a city where as many as four in 10 adults smoke? S’all about perception.

Perhaps this is why Dr. Frank Leone, director of Penn’s Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program, called the new policy “regressive” in a recent Newsworks interview. We’re essentially removing an entirely viable sector of the workforce from Penn’s application pool on the grounds that, basically, we just don’t like them. The divide between smokers and non-smokers has been coming to a head nationally for years, and now at Penn we have one side removing the other from the equation. All that to force a “none of our employees smoke!” marketing meme.

And what of the employees essentially forced to quit or face termination? So many people are going to lie to Penn’s HR department, and that’s because quitting tobacco is extremely difficult. Not to say that it can’t be done, but it definitely can’t be done at the behest of anyone besides the smoker themselves—to suggest that a job could consistently be the “button” to force longtime smokers to quit is, at best, pretty naïve.

But, beyond all that, it’s important to remember that our employers do not own us—or our spouses—and can only dictate our behavior during work hours—or, least, they should only be able to. We shouldn’t have to worry that what we want to put into our bodies might upset the bosses, especially if that substance is completely legal.

But just try and tell Penn to put that in their pipe and smoke it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.j.mcfadden1 Michael J. McFadden

    “Currently employed smokers at Penn Health will not be terminated from their positions come July”

    At least that’s what they’re saying for the moment. Kind of like, “We’re only banning smoking in child-friendly restaurants. No one’s talking about banning smoking in pubs!” (The second sentence there is pretty much verbatim what the government was saying in Britain before the elections five years ago. Of course after the elections … well… things change y’know.)

    Divide and conquer. Do they still teach that in history courses at Penn? Of course they’ll try to justify it on the basis of health care costs, right? But what about when those same computer model sicknesses and deaths being transferred over to the pleasantly plump or cute cocktailer? What about when they show that nonsmokers should be hit with a surcharge on their pension pan payments while smokers get a discount? Suddenly the double-standard rears its ugly head, yes? And what about when the population of smokers at Penn becomes small enough that Penn can dictate that any who are left be forced into “re-education” classes and subjected to further “conditioning” — perhaps through daily mandatory exercise sessions or weekly mandated after-work antismoking courses — and still resists? Hey, at that point there’ll be few enough of them left that a more final solution can take place perhaps? Then we’ll have a nice, happy, healthy, smoker/fat/alcohol-free UPHS!

    Oh. That’ll never happen, right? Sort of reminds me of what I heard so often from the barowners ten years ago.

    I’m beginning to think that the main difference between rats and people is that at least rats fight when they’re backed into a corner.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

  • jonik

    Penn Health (like other places pulling the same scheme) is still going to hire people exposed to health-damaging pesticides, dioxins, industrial and medical radiation, non-organic foods, asbestos, fracking chemicals, mercury in many things, junk foods, GMOs, exhaust fumes, emissions from household plastics and other synthetics, insufficiently-tested drugs, EMFs, toxins in food packaging, flame retardants, or…overall…anything from The Corporate Sector.

    Yes, typical cigarettes come from big corporations, but look what Penn Health blames for their cost burdens. Not Philip Morris, Altria, RJR, etc, or their toxic ingredient suppliers, but instead A) the public domain tobacco plant and B) the primary victims of those cigarette makers who have, for many decades, with full approval from public officials, secretly poisoned and experimented upon smokers with hosts of unlabeled pesticide residues, untested non-tobacco additives, and radiation from certain fertilizers, dioxin-creating chlorine chemicals and chlorine-bleached paper, a heap of kid-attracting sweets etc, fire-causing burn accelerants, and many kinds of non-organic waste cellulose used to make Fake Tobacco. (A cig that isn’t labeled as containing tobacco may not contain any tobacco at all. Ask Your “tobacco” provider. Good luck.)

    The thing is….Penn Health and U of P itself is likely up to here in “generous donations” from the very parts of the cigarette industry that REALLY want to stay under the radar. They are…pharmaceutical firms that make tobacco pesticides and cigarette additives, pesticide makers in general, chlorine industries directly connected or not, agricultural interests (MANY cig additives), paper-pulp-logging, and top health insurers that invest Billions in cigarette manufacturing.
    They ALL, understandably, prefer to Blame The Victims and to scapegoat the “sinful” natural tobacco plant. Search up “Fauxbacco” for references…even ignored stuff from the US govt itself.
    One bottom line…Tobacco itself, without adulterants, hasn’t yet been studied to find justification for any condemnation, bans, penalties or hiring restrictions. BUT…typical Pesticide Pegs, Dioxin Dowels, and Radiation Rods should be avoided, and mfgrs arrested.