Things are not getting easier for tobacco users in Michigan. Now, alongside the inevitable health risks, smokers have to worry about keeping their jobs. Companies are now searching for ways to factor an employee’s smoking habits into hiring, firing and other promotional decisions.

Angela Cesere

Weyco Inc., an Okemos-based medical benefits administrator, is now forbidding workers from smoking, even in the privacy of their own homes. Two years ago, Weyco decided it would no longer hire smokers and that smokers already employed had 15 months to quit — those who failed to comply would be fired. At the beginning of the month, when their time was up, four of the company’s 200 workers had failed to act in accordance with new policy and were promptly shown the door. The new policy prohibits the use of tobacco for all company employees, regardless of whether they are on or off the clock.

This attempt to control the lives of employees should not sit well with anyone who cherishes the values of personal privacy. And it is not just smokers who should be worried.

The company’s rationale — that employees with unhealthy at-home lifestyles pose greater health insurance risks — can impact other groups as well.

While it is true that smokers have a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes and lung disease, there are many other private lifestyle choices that can affect an employee’s insurance liability. In fact, if an employer actually tried to calculate all these risks, the pool of employees whose jobs become vulnerable would be enormous. Statistically speaking, factors such as diet, exercise, driving habits — even sexual orientation — can alter an employee’s health care premiums. Weyco’s bottom-line-driven policy risks initiating a cascade of similar infringements that could have a devastating impact on the composition and morale of the state’s workforce.

Unfortunately, there is not much civil rights activists can do to combat the policy. Michigan state law only specifically protects against discrimination based on age, race, color, gender, marital status, origin, weight, height and religion. Unlike 29 other states in the country which have passed a “smokers’ rights law,” Michigan has no law prohibiting discrimination against employees who choose to smoke. For this reason, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has decided not to challenge Weyco, leaving smokers with the possibility of losing their jobs on account of their personal choices.

Michigan citizens should call for a state law that prohibits such discrimination on the basis of tobacco use and other legal and personal lifestyle decisions. This is a dangerous path for this state to continue down, and this incident should bring some important visibility to the issue.

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