This spring, Momentous Corp., an Ottawa-based tech company, attracted a great deal of attention, both positive and negative, by publicly declaring its strict policy of not hiring smokers. Not only are Momentous employees not allowed to smoke on company time or property, they are expected to carry this forward to their personal time, too. Momentous claims that by taking this stand, it has slashed the cost of its health benefits and also increased productivity.

Momentous is certainly not alone. Policies of not hiring smokers are gaining ground in North America. In the United States, a number of healthcare organizations—including hospitals, municipal governments and large private sector employers—have implemented no-smoking policies as part of their recruiting strategies, with some going as far as to announce that they would concurrently implement nicotine testing as part of their hiring process. A New England Journal of Medicine study published in April indicated that while 29 states have now passed laws preventing employers from screening prospective employees on their smoking status, the other 21 have no such restrictions.

Read: Helping employees to butt out

Although smoking is on the decline, most Canadian employers still have a number of smokers among their employees. According to Health Canada, 17% of the working population smoked in 2010, down from 25% in 1999. Even though the impact to the employer cost of healthcare is different in Canada than it is for American employers, smokers still represent an additional cost to companies. The Conference Board of Canada cites that smokers cost their employers an additional $3,396 annually in lost productivity, increased absenteeism, increased insurance costs and other related costs. And while six provinces have now passed legislation banning smoking in workplaces, it’s still unusual for a Canadian employer to mandate a smoke-free policy outside of working hours.

This trend certainly raises questions of both the ethics and legalities of implementing these policies. The same New England Journal of Medicine study further argues that it’s fundamentally unethical for businesses, even ones in the business of healthcare provision, to refuse to hire candidates just because they smoke. Another commentary in the same publication argues that current smoking cessation strategies are not effective enough and that these “line in the sand” policies are not only justified but send an important message about the dangers of smoking and that short-term pain is necessary for long-term gain for society as a whole.

But is this practice discriminatory? These policies have not been tested against provincial human rights codes to date. However, an arbitration decision in 2000, Cominco Ltd. v. United Steelworkers of America, Local 9705, concluded that heavy smoking is an addiction and therefore constituted a disability under the Human Rights Code of Ontario. Consequently, Cominco Ltd. was required to accommodate this disability to the point of undue hardship as it would any disability. It’s possible then that if a no-smokers hiring policy was brought forward for arbitration, a tribunal could take a similar approach and that asking a candidate whether he or she smoked was comparable to asking that candidate a question that would reveal a disability. Making a hiring decision based on the answer could, therefore, be considered discriminatory.

In Canada today, most employers would argue that hiring decisions should focus on a candidate’s competencies rather than their habits and that best practices for human capital management should include support mechanisms for employees who wish to stop smoking. These mechanisms could include smoking cessation programs, health coaching support through their employee assistance program provider and extended health coverage for smoking cessation aids that keeps the potential for relapse in mind. However, with health costs continually rising, one has to wonder whether no-smokers hiring policies will gain traction in coming years.

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Kim Siddall is a vice-president and local practice leader at Aon. She has more than 20 years of experience in the health and benefits industry. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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Amanda:

And yet, the government continues to sell cigarettes to the population. So, basically you are discriminating against hiring someone who purchases a legal product, which is their own personal decision to consume. Not really fair to me…

Tuesday, June 11 at 1:06 pm | Reply

Iro:

The alleged lost productivity of smokers is just a convenient excuse behind a moral crusade against people who choose to continue partaking in an activity that some bullies disapprove of.

Wednesday, June 12 at 1:32 pm | Reply

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