The list of potential consequences of smoking cigarettes is lengthy. It includes lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, heart disease and stomach ulcers. If two Michigan state senators get their way, smokers will have one more thing to add to that list – unemployment. The two senators, Tom George (R-Kalamazoo) and Bill Hardiman (R-Kentwood), suggested last month that the state’s three research universities – the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University – stop hiring smokers to help cut down on the state’s health care costs. It’s an absurd idea that the University rightly rejected.

Tom Haynes

George made his suggestion to University President Mary Sue Coleman and the two other research university presidents last month at a state Senate Finance Committee meeting. George and another supporter, Hardiman, argue that not hiring or promoting employees who smoke will promote healthy habits and lower health care costs. Neither state law nor the University’s non-discrimination policy explicitly protects smokers from discrimination.

In their veiled attempt to undermine state-funded health care, George and Hardiman make an argument that’s built on shaky ground. Sure, health care costs might fall if people who smoke don’t have health insurnace. But why stop there? Research universities could stop hiring people who eat fast food, don’t exercise regularly and forget to floss. They don’t because the benefits of covering them outweigh the costs.

If the University stopped hiring smokers, it might pass over potentially talented employees. When hiring or promoting professors and staff, the University should be looking for the most qualified people, not necessarily the healthiest. Michigan is already struggling to keep college students from fleeing the state as soon as they get their degrees. Now, it wants intelligent professors who happen to enjoy cigarettes to follow them.

While the law might not explicitly protect people who make poor personal health choices, this suggestion to not hire or promote smokers raises major privacy concerns. Not only would it require the University to ask about people’s personal habits, it would also require them to continually monitor employee habits. How is the University supposed to know if a professor is lighting up a cigarette between classes – or better yet, at home?

And who can forget that smokers are already paying a lot of the state’s bills. A substantial amount of funding for the state’s universities – like the School Aid Fund, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program and the Michigan Merit Award – comes directly from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 and is based on the total sale of cigarettes in the state. The settlement requires tobacco companies to compensate the government for smoking-related medical costs. As of 2005, reports estimate that 34 percent of the $300 million settlement was spent on education.

Smoking is dangerous. But there are much better ways to discourage it without adding smokers to Michigan’s unemployment problem. Better education about the negative consequences of smoking would be a good place to start.

Maybe George and Hardiman could get a few of the state’s chain-smoking professors to help them.

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