Smokers under fire

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Last year a Melbourne publishing firm came under fire for including a disclaimer in job ads that ‘smokers need not apply’ – yet new research has revealed that fatal heart attacks decline amongst all workers when workplaces go smoke-free.

Research out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that US states that impose workplace smoking bans covering the entire population can expect to see an average 70 fewer fatal heart attacks annually, in the 25 to 54 age bracket.

Lead researcher Scott Adams wrote that heart attack fatalities for that age group fall by 17% when states go from having no bans to total workplace smoking prohibitions.

In Australia employers have for some time confined smokers to designated areas, moved smoking areas outside buildings, and limited smoking breaks. However, as some companies are now opting to push smokers out of the workplace altogether, acting commissioner of the Queensland Anti-discrimination Commission Neroli Holmes commented that denying someone a position because they were a smoker was “discriminatory, but not unlawful”. However, the practice could be a slippery slope, and Andrew Tarsy from the US-based Progressive Business Leaders Network questioned whether any such hiring policy is materially different from screening for other lifestyle-related behaviours, including being overweight and drinking alcohol.

According to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission, to provide equal opportunities job advertisements must not be discriminatory and employers should not seek to exclude smokers from applying for a position, unless the need not to smoke is an inherent requirement of the role. Acting Commissioner Karen Toohey warned factors such as weight, height or smoking were not relevant to a person's ability to do their job. “Every employer should be looking for “the best person for a job,” she said.

Some employers are justified in hiring only non-smokers, according to Action on Smoking and Health Australia chief executive Anne Jones. “What is very understandable is that some workplaces are saying they don’t want smokers to apply because they see it as a productivity issue,” Jones told The Herald Sun. She added that every workplace operates differently and some would be better off paying for employees to undergo quit courses.

One workplace lawyer said the practice of taking several 15 minute breaks a day is something many employers see as undermining productivity and it can be easily banned. “There is nothing stopping an employer asking a candidate if they smoke and how often,” Peter Vitalie said. “You can put into a contract that staff are not to smoke during office hours. You can also fix the time of people's breaks and request that in their break they do not leave your premises. There is no law that says you can't discriminate against smokers,” he added.

A representative from the Australian Human Rights Commission told HC that the issue is not covered in any of its legislation.

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