When the presidents of Michigan’s three largest research universities – Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University – appeared before the state’s Senate Finance Committee last month, Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo) suggested to them a simple way they could cut down on the state’s health care costs: refuse to hire smokers.

With the state budget strapped for funds and lawmakers looking to save money wherever possible, George asked the three leaders to not hire smokers as part of a broader statewide cost-cutting measure.

“Where can universities help us make the population healthier?” George said. “I’m not talking building new buildings. I’m talking about changing the behavior of the state’s population.”

Sen. Bill Hardiman (R-Kentwood), who has supported George’s request, said the policy could have a “major impact” on health care costs.

Because smokers’ rights are not protected in Michigan, a ban on hiring smokers is legal, George said in an interview.

University President Mary Sue Coleman said she wouldn’t consider a policy that banned the hiring of smokers. The presidents of Michigan State and Wayne State echoed Coleman’s position.

Coleman told lawmakers that the University had numerous non-smoking areas throughout campus and aggressively marketed programs to its employees to help them quit smoking. There is no protection for smokers in the University’s non-discrimination policy for hiring and admissions, though.

The policy has already appeared at one community college in the state.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College, located in southwest Michigan, instituted a policy in 2005 saying it would not hire any smoker to a job that entails health care coverage. In addition, the college will not promote any existing part-time employees or teachers who smoke to positions that include health care benefits.

The policy was not applicable to existing employees or faculty members with health care who smoke.

KVCC has seen the tobacco discrimination policy as a boon because it saves money and promotes healthy practices among its faculty and staff, said Mike Collins, KVCC’s vice president for college and student relations.

“Obviously, there are direct connections between health care costs and the use of tobacco products and so that was one of the stimuli for making the decision to put this policy in place,” Collins said. “Essentially what this allows us to do is spend less money on

health care costs and more money on our students and educational program.”

He said the school bans only those who smoke, as opposed to those who drink alcohol, because alcohol can have some “therapeutic value” in small doses.

Collins said the policy correlates with the employee health program at KVCC, which involves a wellness assessment for all of the college’s full-time employees.

“We do wellness assessments for all of our employees twice a year and we go through and do an analysis of various risk factors of their individual health,” he said. “We look at things like blood pressure, body mass index – there are several factors that employees are given information on.”

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 215,020 new cases of cancer in 2008 and 161,840 deaths. According to the estimate, tobacco use is the reason for 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 87 percent of lung cancer deaths.

Daily News Editor Emily Barton contributed to this report.

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