Mass. Hospital Association To Ban Hiring Smokers

For Lynn Nicholas, president and CEO of the MHA, the issue of smoking is personal. “I have lost my own father and many, many of my beloved relatives to smoke and secondhand smoke,” she said. (Courtesy of MHA)

BOSTON — No Smokers Need Apply.

That’s the message you’ll hear from the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA) starting Jan. 1. A ban on hiring smokers as police officers or firefighters has been in place in Massachusetts since 1997, but the hospital association could be the first to take restrictions in the private sector to a new level. It hopes to become the model as employers get more involved in their employees’ health care.

For Lynn Nicholas, president and CEO of the MHA, this is personal.

“I have lost my own father and many,  many of my beloved relatives to smoke and secondhand smoke,” Nicholas said.

The association says refusing to hire employees who use tobacco of any kind is an extension of its no smoking policy in and around the office.

“We’re basically saying this is not an environment that we want in the future, so we’re not going to add individuals who use tobacco to our workforce,” she said.

Nicholas hopes to become a model for hospitals in her association and other employers.

She may be standing alone for awhile.

“It sounds like a well-intentioned idea but — it may be the post-Halloween in me — I find it a little bit scary,” said Andrew Tarsy, director of the Progressive Business Leaders Network in Massachusetts.

Tarsy said pulling smokers out of the job pool could mean employers don’t get the most qualified applicants or unwittingly screen out members of some socioeconomic groups. Most employers, he adds, are also wary of intervening in employees’ personal choices.

“A lot of employers would question whether this is a slippery slope,” Tarsy said. “Will the next set of screens be about whether they drive or what their diet is? Other lifestyle choices? And where does that end?”

Nicholas said she has no plans to restrict hiring based on any other criteria.

Police and fire departments across the state stopped hiring smokers in 1997 as part of a pension system overhaul. A ban on hiring or firing smokers would be illegal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s one reason the practice has not become more common, according to Leonard Sanicola with World at Work, a nonprofit human resources research group.

“It is still not considered to be a growing trend. The companies that I’ve seen that have done it have been mostly in the health care arena,” Sanicola said. “Most employers do wellness initiatives that are more of the carrot than the stick approach to try to get people to change their behaviors.”

The MHA does offer smoking cessation programs for current employees. It does not plan to check up on the off-duty behavior of new hires.

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