Medical Life

By near universal acclaim, smoke-free workplaces have made the world a better place – cleaner, healthier, more pleasant and with lower laundry bills previously spent eliminating the stench of stale tobacco from the office suit.

Prepare now for smoker-free workplaces – a sinister new development which will see smokers banned altogether from working for companies that disapprove of their noxious habit.

As with most trends, it started in America – the "land of the free" which has some of the most oppressive rules in the developed world – but has already encroached on this side of the Atlantic. Unsurprisingly, too, health care organisations are in the vanguard of the new trend.

The National Cancer Institute in Washington encourages the preferential hiring of non-smokers, while the World Health Organisation has barred smokers from its workforce since 2005, according to Professor Michael Siegel, of Boston University School of Public Health.

Clarian Health, a hospital system in Kansas, has a no-smokers policy. But not all are engaged in the business of health. Weyco is an employee benefits company that stopped hiring smokers in 2003. It has gone a quantum leap further than most by making smoking outside work a sackable offence, and recently extended the rule to employees' spouses.

According to Professor Siegel, Weyco is the only company that has threatened to fire existing employees if they smoke (even in the privacy of their own homes). Most other companies introduced the rule prospectively.

The driver behind these extraordinary moves appears to be money – it saves on expensive healthcare costs, which in the US are borne by employers. What is unexplained is why employers cannot simply withhold health cover from employees who smoke, or charge them a premium price to maintain cover.

There is a scale of harms associated with smoking. As a non-smoker, I am of course in favour of smoke-free public spaces. But even I baulked at the closure of The Independent's smoking room. What harm were they doing, apart from to each other? That seemed to me a curb on individual freedom too far.

The latest assault – banning smokers rather than smoking – is an order of magnitude more serious. What the US does today, we tend to find ourselves doing tomorrow.

On this occasion, we must draw the line. As the anti-smoking charity Ash (which bans smoking but not smokers among its own employees) says, the object of the policy should be the habit, not the person who has it. A ban on smokers is an unacceptable infringement of personal liberty and must be firmly resisted.


With all economic indicators turning down in the recession, we should be grateful one is on the up: sex. I understood that money worries and fears of job loss were the quickest ways to kill ardour. But Professor Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has set me right. "Times of stress can trigger feelings of attraction. Quite simply, you're more susceptible," she says. There's a new venue, then, to find romance – the Job Centre.