Fairfax County may legally force employees who smoke to take classes aimed at helping them quit, but it can’t require workers to actually kick the habit, the county’s top attorney has informed the Board of Supervisors.

County attorney David Bobzien offered his interpretation of the law in a Dec. 7 memo. Supervisors are expected to discuss the issue in a committee meeting Tuesday.

Bobzien’s advice is in response to an October request for information from Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who has suggested that the county consider forced cessation classes as a means of saving money on employees’ health care.

In a follow-up request last week, Hyland asked further questions: Can the county consider tobacco use in hiring decisions? Can the county ban tobacco use on all county property, including outdoors? And does the county have any authority to regulate other risky behaviors among employees, such as skiing?

In short, Bobzien said no to all of Hyland’s questions, except the one about forced cessation classes.

“Yes, the county may require its employees to participate in smoking cessation courses just as it may require its employees to take training on other topics,” the memo states. But state law “does not permit the county to require employees to discontinue smoking after taking such training.”

State law also doesn’t allow the county to consider tobacco use in hiring, Bobzien wrote.

While the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act allowed the county to ban smoking inside county buildings and vehicles, “the county could not extend that prohibition to other areas, e.g., parks, sidewalks.”

As for why the county cannot regulate other risky behavior among employees, Bobzien said county workers are “free to engage, without penalty or county regulation, in activities that may incur certain risks, e.g., individual diet choices and participation in active sports.”

While Bobzien’s advice seems to clear the way for the board to pursue forced cessation classes, Hyland’s idea likely wouldn’t win enough support among other supervisors. Most have said they would support incentivizing participation, but not making classes mandatory.

“I would object to any kind of forced or required training to get people to stop smoking,” board chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said in a statement. “Smoking is a very unhealthy habit, but it is also an addiction that is hard to kick. A person must be ready and willing to change their behavior.”

Since first suggesting the idea, Hyland has received lots of feedback from employees and the public, most of it angry, he has said. Besides bringing down health-care costs, Hyland, whose father died of lung cancer, has said he believes the county has a moral obligation to help workers quit.

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