The spirit of Michael Bloomberg is extending beyond New York, as a major Arizona county is considering a ban on hiring smokers as municipal employees and imposing a surcharge on the health insurance of tobacco users already on the payroll.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote Dec. 16 on the plan, which also would give the county the right to demand nicotine tests of employees if county officials suspect they’re secretly puffing or dipping, whether at home or work, the Arizona Daily Star reported Friday.
“It’s not an attempt to punish anybody,” Human Resources Director Allyn Bulzomi told the Daily Star. “It’s an attempt to encourage people to be healthy.”
In order to be hired by the county, which contains Tucson and the University of Arizona, prospective employees would have to provide a doctor’s note certifying them as having been tobacco-free for at least one year or take a drug test to prove same.
In addition, current employees who sign a legal affidavit declaring themselves non-smokers get a $5 health-care discount per biweekly pay period while tobacco users must pay an extra 30 percent fee on top of their existing health-care costs.
County officials say the expect the policy to reap about $1 million in annual savings.
“Our taxpayers pay for our health insurance because we are self-insured,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Daily Star. “Anything we can do to reduce the cost is beneficial.”
While Mr. Bulzomi said the county will not impose random nicotine tests, if a supervisor has specific reason to suspect an employee who says he is tobacco-free is not, a mandatory test could happen.
“We’re going to use reasonable suspicion,” he said. “If there is reasonable suspicion we will have a conversation and probably use a test.”
The proposal has led to criticism from some public-health officials who call it discrimination and Nanny-Statism.
“It is a form of employment discrimination,” Dr. Michael Siegel, a public health professor at Boston University, told the Daily Star. “Discrimination is essentially making employment decisions based on a group to which someone belongs rather than their qualifications for the job.”
Arizona is one of 21 states that do not have laws declaring smokers to be a protected class under discrimination laws, meaning the Pima County code is fine by the state.
Dr. Siegel, whom told the Daily Star that he is an advocate of smoke-free workplaces, also called a tobacco-use ban off the job a “slippery slope,” arguing that the county’s reasoning — savings in medical costs and health insurance — could justify refusing to hire fat people or people with genetic dispositions to illnesses such as breast cancer.
If passed, the policy would take effect next July and, according to Mr. Huckelberry, would cover use of e-cigarettes though not anti-smoking patches or gums and similar nicotine-replacement products.
The county health department estimates that almost one-third of the county’s more than 7,000 employees are tobacco users.
• Victor Morton can be reached at email@example.com.
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