Smokers and Fat People Need Not Apply

Employers are heading down a slippery slope by banning employees from smoking not just on the job but at any time.  More specifically, there is a growing rank of employers won’t even hire applicants whose urine tests positive for nicotine.  While these companies are typically hospitals or other organizations in the healthcare industry, Alaska Airlines is now on the roster of those anti-smoker employers.  Such tobacco-free hiring policies are designed to reduce insurance premiums for all workers.  Makes sense.  But beware!  Selective hiring as such, if it is embraced, could mean that overweight or obese people are next on the “Do Not Hire” list.

Each year, smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke causes 443,000 premature deaths and costs the nation $193 billion in health bills and lost productivity.  Okay, I get it!  If a company does not hire smokers, then the logic is that overall employee insurance premiums go down, because overall healthcare costs for the company go down.  Another victory for the non-smokers, and insurance companies!  Let’s just hope that these nicotine-free employees are not fat, too.

In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion, and the medical costs paid by third-parties for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.  All trends point to obesity becoming an increasing healthcare issue.   About one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese, and this population is “growing”.  But, wouldn’t this be discrimination?  Aren’t obese employees covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?  Not really.

The EEOC’s position is that the ADA covers morbid obesity (defined as having a body weight more than 100% over the norm) and obesity caused by a physiological disorder.  Courts don’t have to follow the EEOC’s lead, however.  Some have rejected the view that morbid obesity, in and of itself, is an ADA impairment.  For example, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that “…to constitute an ADA impairment, a person’s obesity, even morbid obesity, must be the result of a physiological condition.”  (EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 6th Cir., No. 05-3218, 2006).

So, out with the smokers and fat people! Taken to an extreme, the least expensive solution for employers would be to have DNA screens of all applicants to weed out those other people with propensities to develop Alzheimer’s and particularly costly cancers.  Hmmm.  If we think hard enough here at HRInsights, we could probably come up with a good reason to not hire people with tattoos, too.


  1. Sylvia says:

    Seems like Big Brother. I understand though how this can long term cut costs. Can I impose these standards on employees already on staff and give them a year to comply without repercussions. Can anyone tell me what my company’s health care costs can be decreased by as a % if I can assure that we do nicotine screening? Seems absurd, but it can be good for my employees and my bottom line.

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