Smoke Got In Their Eyes

By Leonard Glantz
Sunday, December 18, 2005

The World Health Organization (WHO), the health branch of the United Nations, has announced that it will no longer hire smokers. Its spokeswoman said, "As a matter of principle, WHO does not want to recruit smokers." The "principle," according to the spokeswoman, is: "WHO tries to encourage people to try and lead a healthy life."

By this action WHO has transformed its war against smoking to a war against smokers. On its new job application, WHO asks applicants if they are smokers. If the applicant answers "yes," the application will be discarded.

With the hanging of the "No Smokers Need Apply" sign on its door, WHO has joined a long line of bigots who would not hire people of color, members of religious minorities, or disabled or gay people because of who they are or what they lawfully do.

To outlaw discriminatory hiring practices, both state and federal governments have passed a series of anti-discrimination laws that all share an underlying basis: The only legitimate job requirements are those that are related to the applicant's ability to do the work, as long as they do not endanger others.

In the language of the law, employers may impose bona fide occupational requirements. Thus, it is one thing to ban smoking in the workplace but quite another to ban employees who smoke away from the workplace. What WHO's new policy says is that it will not hire any member of a group that constitutes 25 percent of adults in the United States -- no matter how well qualified, dedicated and caring they are -- because of activities away from the workplace that have no impact on their job performance.

Under WHO's policy, if Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler applied for a job, only Hitler, the sole nonsmoker in the group (and someone who would not allow anyone to smoke near him), would be eligible for consideration.

The organization's "principled" stand could, and logically should, be applied to other unhealthful activities. While WHO would be the first to note that smoking is the leading cause of premature deaths, there is no reason this policy should not be applied to the second- and third-leading causes and to various other unhealthful activities in which so many engage. And, of course, if WHO succeeds in eliminating smoking, some other activity will take its place as the number one cause of premature death. WHO's logical next step in amending its application form is to ask for the height and weight of applicants so it can discard the applications of obese people.

In adopting this policy, WHO is not acting in its capacity as a health care organization but rather as an employer. And the principle that it argues for is that employers can impose job requirements based on what its employees do off the job. One can only imagine WHO's reaction to a tobacco company that requires all its employees to smoke or a gun company that requires them all to keep a gun and ammunition in their homes. The position that WHO has adopted would neatly support such ludicrous employment requirements.

I imagine that the health organization sees itself as leading the way in encouraging other companies to adopt similar oppressive and arbitrary job requirements. In doing so it encourages the most coercive form of social control short of outlawing smoking. Other than the very rich, people must work, and WHO's position is that smokers should not be allowed to work.

The proper response to such an oppressive condition of employment is for federal and state governments to adopt laws that prohibit job discrimination based on activities that employees engage in outside the workplace that have no impact on job performance. Several states have already adopted such laws, and WHO's actions demonstrate the need for them in every jurisdiction.

The writer is a professor of health law, bioethics and human rights at the Boston University School of Public Health.

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