Smokers in the US state of Arizona could soon be forced to decide just how much they enjoy lighting up.
Officials in Pima County, which includes the city of Tuscon, are set to consider new rules that would prohibit the hiring of people who smoke and charging current employees who do partake additional sums for their health insurance.
The authorities believe the move could save more than $1m (£640,000) in reduced health care costs. But some observers have said the move would amount to workplace discrimination.
“It’s not an attempt to punish anybody,” human resources director Allyn Bulzomi told Tuscon’s Daily Star newspaper. “It’s an attempt to encourage people to be healthy.”
Officials in Pima County believe that 32 per cent of their 2,300 workers use some form of tobacco. Across the county, smokers cost the authority more than $13m.
According to a proposal that is to be considered on 16 December, any prospective employee will have to provide a note from their doctor or else undergo a medical test to show that they have been tobacco-free for a year. Meanwhile, those current staff who do smoke and who intend to continue doing so will be asked to contribute an extra 30 per cent to their their health insurance premium. The policy will also apply to electronic cigarettes but not nicotine gum or patches.
“Our taxpayers pay for our health insurance because we are self-insured,“ Chuck Huckelberry, administrator of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, told the Associated Press. “Anything we can do to reduce the cost is beneficial.”
While officials say the steps are being taken to try and improve the health of workers, some analysts have said that an out-right ban is a step too far and could backfire. Michael Siegel, a professor in public health at Boston University public health professor who has campaigned for smoke-free workplaces, said the move being considered in Arizona could amount to discrimination.
“Discrimination is essentially making employment decisions based on a group to which someone belongs rather than their qualifications for the job,” he said.