Over the past few decades, workplaces across the nation have developed smoke-free policies. In fact, most employers no longer allow workers to smoke in the office, but a new policy could make it impossible for smokers to even get a job in the first place. In Pima County, Arizona, officials have a plan to cut down on healthcare cost by refusing jobs for smokers and vapers. Even worse, they plan to implement a 30 percent surcharge on health insurance premiums for current employees that refuse to kick the habit.
County officials will vote on the new policy later this month. Though it seems harsh, they believe it could shave a million dollars off of their healthcare costs each year “Our taxpayers pay for our health insurance because we are self-insured,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry explained. “Anything we can do to reduce the cost is beneficial.” Currently, around a third of Pima County employees are tobacco users and the Health Departments says it costs $13.4 million annually to cover their health related expenses.
The new policy would require all new employees to be tobacco-free for one year before applying. They would have to prove that they have not used nicotine or tobacco for a full year with either a drug test or a doctor’s note. Current workers would be given an incentive to quit with a $5 healthcare discount on each biweekly paycheck. But if they refuse, they would be charged a 30 percent increase on their insurance premiums. In 2017, that rate would go up to 50 percent.
Huckelberry said they would not add the surcharge to employees that were using nicotine in the form of approved nicotine replacement therapies such as gum or patches. However, vaping would not be allowed and e-cig use would be treated as smoking. While many are appalled by the policy, Human Resources Director Allyn Bulzomi said the goal is only to help employees move towards better health. “It’s an attempt to encourage people to be healthy,” he said.
So how would the county enforce the policy? “We’re going to to use reasonable suspicion,” Bulzomi explained. “If there is reasonable suspicion we will have a conversation and probably use a test.”
Dr. Michael Siegel, public health professor at Boston University, said this is taking the concept of a smoke-free workplace too far. “It’s a form of employment discrimination,” he said. “Discrimination is essentially making employment decisions based on a group to which someone belongs rather than their qualifications for the job.” Siegel cautioned that this was a “slippery slope” that could lead to healthcare surcharges for people that are overweight or even for those with hereditary medical conditions.
Do you think Pima County officials are out of line with this new policy? Is this discrimination?