Fairfax County Supervisor Gerry Hyland has been overwhelmed with less-than-pleasant feedback in response to his suggestion that the county try to require employees who smoke to take cessation classes, he said Tuesday.
Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) first broached the topic in October, saying
the county should look into whether or not it has the right to require workers who smoke to attend classes aimed at helping them quit. Since media reports about it, he has received tons of e-mails, including some that “indicate I’m the devil incarnate,” he said.
Others praised the idea, Hyland added, including county employees who told him they resent that smokers get extra breaks.
He said he would spare fellow supervisors further details on the nastier comments.
Hyland, whose father smoked and died of lung cancer, made the latest remarks during a Board of Supervisors meeting in which he formalized his earlier request for information on the matter. In addition to asking for guidance on forced cessation classes for new employees, he asked board lawyers to look into whether the county could legally consider tobacco use in hiring decisions and whether it could ban smoking on all county property.
“Many people may object to these suggestions,” Hyland said in a prepared statement. “However, our goal should be to find ways to discourage county employees from smoking, reduce our overall costs as a county, and encourage and support healthy habits.”
While the board backed Hyland’s request for information, chairman Sharon Bulova (D) was careful to say that doesn’t mean the ideas will go any further. She agreed the county should encourage smokers to quit, but she said she doesn’t support forced cessation classes or a ban on hiring smokers.
Calling the issue a “slippery slope,” supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully) questioned why the county would only look into tobacco use when employees engage in many behaviors that can lead to higher health care costs for taxpayers, such as skiing. He suggested that Hyland broaden his request to include information on whether the county has the authority to regulate any risky behavior, to which Hyland agreed.
Other supervisors also expressed hesitation, saying they would prefer measures that incentivize healthy choices, such as a wellness program with reduced insurance premiums, rather than anything compulsory.
Hyland noted that employees who’ve taken advantage of free, voluntary cessation classes offered by the county have generally had success quitting.
He said not taking steps to reduce smoking among workers would be irresponsible, although he added that he needs more information before deciding on the best course of action.
“How we get to that result,” Hyland said, “I’m not sure.”
The county’s top attorney, David Bobzien, said his office would work quickly on a response.
In the past, Hyland has suggested that the county stop hiring smokers, an idea that he has said was emphatically shut down.