It’s a proven fact that smoking cigarettes increases health risks and raises medical costs—which means that employing cigarette smokers can be costly for your company. Employees who smoke are often less productive, take more breaks than non-smokers and are sick more often. To lower costs and increase productivity, many employers are choosing not to hire those who smoke and are implementing strict no-smoking policies. Some companies are taking this step as a way to encourage healthy behavior and boost their community image—particularly those in the health care industry. However, this strategy comes with legal risks, as many states have laws granting protections to employees who smoke. Here’s what you need to know about this issue.
Over half of all states currently have laws that grant some protections to employees who smoke, though these laws vary. Some protect only current employees who smoke, but allow employers to refuse to hire a cigarette smoker. Other states prohibit any sort of discrimination against smokers, even during the hiring process; these laws state that an employer cannot discriminate against an employee or applicant based on lawful activities engaged in by the individual outside of company time. It is important that you learn the details of any relevant statute in the state(s) your company operates in. Employers not in compliance with their state laws face the risk of lawsuits.
All state laws, however, allow companies to prohibit smoking on company property or company time, which can be an advantageous and cost-effective policy.
In Iowa, there are currently no laws protecting smokers, which means that employers can refuse to hire candidates who smoke. Iowa does not require employers to create designated smoking areas or provide other accommodations for smokers in the workplace.
Iowa laws don’t address employer policies on smoking in the workplace. Local laws regulating smoking — at the city, county, or town level — may require employers to have a policy on smoking in some areas. And, even though it’s not required by law in Iowa, employers are generally free to adopt policies on smoking in the workplace if they choose to.
What Employers Should Do
The most important step in formulating any type of anti-smoking policy is to learn the details of your state’s applicable laws. If it is legal in your state to refuse to hire smokers and ban employees from smoking, and you choose to do this, be sure to draft a specific policy, including how you will enforce this policy for current employees. It may be prudent to have legal counsel review this policy.
You can find out more about Iowa’s smoking regulations by reading Iowa Code 142D. SHRM has a summary of all states’ smoking laws here.
There are also alternative options to reduce the cost burden associated with employees who smoke, if you decide not to or legally cannot ban smokers completely from your workplace:
Ban smoking anywhere on your premises. This will emphasize that smoking is not acceptable to your company and will also make it difficult for your employees to take smoke breaks during the work day, increasing productivity. This may even give employees the push they need to quit smoking.
If you implement this policy (and it is properly documented and communicated to employees), you will have legal standing to discipline or terminate any employee caught smoking on company premises.
Implement a smoking cessation program for employees. Include educational and counseling resources for help, and consider providing incentives for employees who quit and stay smoke-free.
Charge smokers higher insurance premiums than non-smoking employees. Smoker surcharges need to be designed carefully because this is an area that is subject to federal regulation and may also be subject to state insurance laws. This strategy should be used in conjunction with a smoking cessation program, as an added incentive to quit. Even if employees choose not to quit, this higher premium will help shift costs associated with smoking away from your company.
Targeting cigarette smoking can be an advantageous strategy to increase the health of your employee population, reduce health care costs and increase productivity—just be sure to carefully examine applicable laws, and draft specific policies to protect your company from legal trouble.