Smokers in the Workforce: Why Do We Make Them Modern Day Lepers?

Nearly 20 years ago when I was editor of a newspaper in Great Falls, Montana, there was a winter ritual that never ceased to amaze me: watching members of my staff huddled outside the back door of the building trying to have a quick smoke before they couldn’t stand the cold anymore.

Yes, northern Montana can be a pretty chilly place.

The February day I left to fly to a new job in Hawaii (that’s another story for another day), the temperature was a crisp 15 below zero with a wind chill of around minus 45,  so seeing people huddled outside freezing their fannies off just because they needed a smoke seemed, well, a little excessive.

This just proved to be again that smokers go through a lot to be able to get their fix.

Although it’s not a habit I ever got into, I know from all too many friends and relatives who did just how easy it is to start but terribly difficult to quit.

That’s why, as a dedicated and life-long non-smoker, I wonder: Why do we abuse smokers so badly? And why does that abuse keep ratcheting up, especially in the workplace?

From banning smoking to banning smokers

Just last week, The New York Times wrote about how what used to be smoking bans has now turned into outright smoker bans.

Smokers now face another risk from their habit: it could cost them a shot at a job.

More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living.

The policies reflect a frustration that softer efforts — like banning smoking on company grounds, offering cessation programs and increasing health care premiums for smokers — have not been powerful-enough incentives to quit.

The new rules essentially treat cigarettes like an illegal narcotic. Applications now explicitly warn of “tobacco-free hiring,” job seekers must submit to urine tests for nicotine and new employees caught smoking face termination.”

Now, I know there are a great many people who have no use for smoking and consider it a dirty, filthy habit. It’s gotten terribly expensive, too, as state governments pile on ever-larger taxes on cigarettes since few people complain about taxing to death something that’s seen as a deadly vice.

Why turn smokers into modern day lepers?

Plus, there are more invasive and restrictive rules that local municipalities keep putting into place that make it hard for smokers to find a place to get their fix. If banning smoking in bars and restaurants made sense – why should non-smokers have to put up with passive smoke? – the latest laws and regulations banning smoking in public places like beaches, parks, and even public sidewalks, seem terribly excessive.

I don’t like smoke blowing in my face, but I also think that turning smokers into modern day lepers doesn’t solve anything, either.

In fact, the over-the-top zeal and righteousness of many non-smokers frankly drives a life-long non-smoker like me a little crazy. And now, with a sharper focus on our ever-rising health care costs, penalizing smokers who don’t get with the program and kick the habit is morphing from obsession to vendetta by going after the ability of smokers to earn a living. As that New York Times story points out:

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This shift — from smoke-free to smoker-free workplaces — has prompted sharp debate, even among anti-tobacco groups, over whether the policies establish a troubling precedent of employers intruding into private lives to ban a habit that is legal…

One concern voiced by groups like the National Workrights Institute is that such policies are a slippery slope — that if they prove successful in driving down health care costs, employers might be emboldened to crack down on other behavior by their workers, like drinking alcohol, eating fast food and participating in risky hobbies like motorcycle riding. The head of the Cleveland Clinic was both praised and criticized when he mused in an interview two years ago that, were it not illegal, he would expand the hospital policy to refuse employment to obese people.

There is nothing unique about smoking,” said Lewis Maltby, president of the Workrights Institute, who has lobbied vigorously against the practice. “The number of things that we all do privately that have negative impact on our health is endless. If it’s not smoking, it’s beer. If it’s not beer, it’s cheeseburgers. And what about your sex life?”

Are cheeseburgers and sex next?

Yes, what about beer, cheeseburgers, and your sex life? When do the zealots who have made it their life’s work to eradicate smoking turn to those things? It makes me wonder: whatever happened to compassion and understanding – in the workplace, for our fellow workers, for humanity?

Most smokers, in my observation, don’t really want to smoke. All too often, they complain about the same things non-smokers do, namely, the cost, health concerns, and overall hassle. But, smoking has a powerful hold on people, and tobacco companies added to the problem by actually working to make cigarettes even more addictive by spiking them with additional nicotine, as anyone who has seen the film The Insider knows all too well.

This is where HR can make a difference. Smart HR departments can help balance the very real and legitimate health and cost concerns that smoking burdens us with, and balance them with some compassion and understanding for how smokers are getting squeezed and branded with The Scarlett Letter in the workplace.

Who better than HR to bridge this gap, to help make sure that in the zeal to stamp out a terrible habit like smoking that we don’t make the mistake of stamping out the very real human beings who are caught up in the cycle of this addiction?

We’re on the verge of going too far, I’m afraid. Regulating behavior by banning people with a bad habit from working may seem like a good idea, but it is terribly destructive to society at large and many of our workplaces in particular.

I saw it 20 years ago when I marveled at people who were willing to nearly freeze to death to get in a smoke. Yes, smoking is a bad habit, but attacking the livelihood of those who smoke only shows that in our obsession to reach the end goal, we forget about how we trample over the affected humans in order to get there.

Getting rid of smoking is a good idea, but trampling on the rights and humanity of smokers in the workforce isn’t the way to go about it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


6 Comments on “Smokers in the Workforce: Why Do We Make Them Modern Day Lepers?

  1. John, you are on the side of the angels, at least for us smokers. An eminent psychopharmacologist told me that nicotine is more addictive than heroin, and in his 40 years of clinical experience, 20 percent of smokers are physically incapable of stopping.

    So why isn’t HR treating us as people with a chronic disease or a disability or even, sorry, a special need? Like alcoholics, telling smokers to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and quit, just doesn’t cut it. It’s a disease.

    Continue writing great stories, just shorter ones.

  2. I agree 100%, Bill. There needs to be more workplace efforts to help people stop the addiction rather than the more punitive attempts. Simple solutions, like banning smokers, come from simple minds. More compassion and care would go a long way to motivate smokers to quit instead of just punishing them for not doing so.

  3. John:
    Using your analogy of lepers you must recall the reason they were isolated. It is because the disease was infectious and caused others harm. Smoking is similar. The smoker harms themselves but they also harm the groups they are around with second hand smoke, shown to be as bad as the prime smoke. Not to mention the effect on the work flow, healthcare costs, etc.

    That being said, I recognize how addictive it is. I watched my father battle with it for a long time. It takes a valient effort to quit. It takes a lot of support to quit. But you should not expect your company to bear the burden of offering you that support. Many that I have been associated with have tried to offer that support, through programs such as smoke enders. But, as with any addiction, the cure does not work if the addict is unwilling to do it.

    Smoking is not a right and if I want to run a company that excludes smokers I should be free to do so. The smoker may not appreciate it, but the rest of the employees do…

    1. Mike: I wasn’t making a case for smokers to be able to blow smoke in non-smokers faces. That’s why those people I used to work with in Montana were huddled outside in sub-zero temperatures — because they knew they had to take their bad habit away from people who didn’t want to be exposed to it.

      But, I do believe that you get a lot more out of people — and build a better workforce — when you work to help people rather than summarily excluding them because they’re smokers. Plus, I can see where this is going. There are all sorts of vices and bad habits that someone will decide to go after next. What happens when people decide to move from smokers to the overweight, or to those who don’t exercise, or who like a couple of pops when they get home from the office?

      Kutik’s comment is spot-on: smoking addiction is as bad as an addiction to heroin or any other drug. We need to work on helping people, not exclude them because they fell into a bad habit after watching so many cool people doing it in the movies.

      1. Actually, my point was that in some cases smoking is an incurable disease. At least that’s my excuse. So no more work breaks for diabetics needing to have their dialysis!

  4. Yes, but when someone has a cheeseburger neither I nor any of those nearby get fat or have a heart attack – just the cheeseburger-eater does. And when a person is obese, I don’t gain weight by being around her or him. And smokers STINK! Their clothes stink, their breath stinks, their cars stink. If someone had body odor a supervisor could rightly send her home, but a smoker can reek and still gets to stay and make the rest of us nauseous.

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