U-Haul made waves when they announced a nicotine-free hiring policy at the end of 2019. "This policy is a responsible step in fostering a culture of wellness at U-Haul, with the goal of helping our Team Members on their health journey," said U-Haul Chief of Staff, Jessica Lopez, in a press release. The policy officially went into effect at the beginning of February in all 21 states where U-Haul is legally able to do so.
While U-Haul made headlines, it was not the first company to enact a nicotine-free policy; many hospitals have them, and other organizations are joining in. The question is, is the policy a good idea for your organization? While the answer is ultimately up to your company, here are a few things to consider when making your decision.
Companies that have nicotine-free policies in place are claiming the employees’ health and long-term well-being as one of their top purposes for the policy. Tobacco and nicotine use is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States (CDC), which is why companies like U-Haul have said that their policies are about encouraging employees to be healthy.
However, nicotine is also addictive, though. People who use it know that it’s unhealthy, but quitting is a difficult thing to do. That’s why some employers prefer to encourage healthy behaviors rather than discourage unhealthy behaviors attorney, Karen Buesing, told NPR. It keeps things positive and avoids any risk of liability or discrimination. If companies choose not to screen for tobacco, they can still enact programs that encourage their employees to quit smoking.
The direct and indirect costs of smoking are staggering. Each year, smoking costs the US economy more than $300 billion. More than half of that ($170 billion) is direct medical care. Smoke breaks also add up; smoking costs the country $156 billion in lost productivity (CDC). So, it’s reasonable for companies to want to cut their costs a little bit by not paying extra insurance costs for smokers, as well as not paying for lost productivity.
Many companies have gotten around these costs by passing them onto smokers— most companies are allowed to charge smokers higher insurance premiums, as long as those costs accurately reflect the difference between smokers and non-smokers.
Harald Schmidt, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told NPR that another potential issue with nicotine-free hiring is that it may unfairly target unemployed people. He said that nearly half of unemployed people smoke. It’s very possible that even if people are trying to quit, they wouldn’t be able to get a job with a company that has a nicotine-free policy. Schmidt called this a “double-whammy” for them.
On a federal level, it is perfectly legal to choose not to hire smokers. They’re not a protected class. But, there are two factors that might increase your risk of an unlawful discrimination claim. First, notice that U-Haul’s policy only applies in 21 states— that’s because everywhere else has a state law that protects smokers. These laws are either clear legislation that specifically protects smokers, or they’re laws that deny you from refusing to hire someone based on their lawful activities outside of work.
The second factor is a bit more complex. According to the CDC, cigarette smoking is more than twice as high among people with disabilities (27.8%) than it is among people without disabilities (13.4%). So, when you reject someone based on their smoking activity, you run into a risk of it seeming like you’re rejecting them based on a disability.
While U-Haul’s nicotine-free hiring policy will not apply to existing workers, the organization will start screening new hires and requiring them to consent to future drug testing— including nicotine. Whether a nicotine-free hiring policy, like U-Haul’s, is in the near future for your organization or not, be sure you have a screening provider that can help you navigate the implementation and execution of your screening needs.