Tennessee Hospital Is Hiring; Smokers Need Not Apply

Wanted: health care workers. Smokers need not apply.

Beginning next month, Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn., will do its darnedest to snuff out nicotine. The hospital will not hire smokers, and it will test all job applicants for nicotine as part of its pre-employment drug screening.

Now chew on this: Any evidence of nicotine use — including cessation products like nicotine gum or a patch — will make job applicants ineligible, hospital spokesman Brian Lazenby told FoxNews.com.

Current employees at the hospital will not be affected, but applicants who test positive for tobacco use will not be offered jobs and may be disqualified from reapplying for six months.

The decision to reject job-seekers who smoke is intended to set an example in the community and is not based on potential health care savings, Memorial Hospital Vice President Brad Pope told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"I understand the concerns people have, but we are here for the health of our community," Pope told the newspaper. "Like it or not, what’s proven is that tobacco is the most preventable cause of death and disability in the United States. I think Chattanooga and surrounding communities should expect this from Memorial." Pope did not return several messages seeking comment from FoxNews.com.

But Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, said the policy is "too invasive" and creates a "slippery slope," even though it's legal.

"My position is I oppose these types of policies, although I am a very strong anti-smoking advocate," Siegel said. "I believe this is going too far. It really is employment discrimination."

He said he considered the policy discriminatory, since smoking during non-work hours has no direct relevance to a worker's job performance.

"It really sets a dangerous precedent," he said. "What about people who eat really poor diets?"

He said he also was concerned that other employers might take note and delve into the personal lives of their employees.

"Obviously, if it's illegal activity, that's relevant," Siegel said. "But if it's legal, I think it's inappropriate and an invasion of privacy."

Another cessation expert agreed.

"My personal take on that is it's a little heavy," said Barbara Forbes, director of the Institute for Smoking Prevention and Cessation at Tennessee's Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "What we do in our personal lives shouldn't mandate whether or not [candidates] are hired."

Forbes said employees at Vanderbilt University Medical Center are prohibited from smoking within 50 feet of hospital grounds, but hospital policy regarding smoking does not extend beyond those limits. She said she was unaware of another hospital with a smoking policy as tough as Memorial's.

Memorial Hospital is owned and operated by Catholic Health Initiatives, a national nonprofit organization based in Denver.

Jeff Hentschel, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the hospital's policy is legal since it pertains only to new hires. State law prohibits termination of an employee for engaging in legal activities during non-work hours.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking accounts for roughly 443,000 deaths annually, or nearly one in five deaths — more than are caused by HIV, drug and alcohol use, suicides, murders and motor vehicle injuries combined.

Smoking also is responsible for an estimated $96 billion in direct medical costs and $97 billion in lost productivity annually, the CDC estimates.

Forbes said roughly 7 percent of doctors smoke, far lower than the national average of 20.3 percent.

"They know, and smokers know," she said of the benefits of quitting. "It's not that they don't want to quit, it's that they haven't had the right methodology.

"Four out of five smokers will tell you they want to quit, but there are life circumstances sometimes that get in the way. It's difficult to do even if you want to do it."