Smoke Screens

WEYCO INC., a Michigan medical benefits administrator, is bullying employees into being healthy by threatening to fire them for smoking in their own homes as well as at work and the policy is perfectly legal.

“You have no constitutional rights in the workplace,” said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Workrights Institute, an organization founded five years ago to improve employee protections. He noted that only states with so-called “lifestyle rights laws” give workers recourse against bosses objecting to after-hours activities. Thirty-one states not including Michigan or Massachusetts have such laws. All prohibit restrictions on private use of tobacco products, while less than half prohibit bans on alcohol consumption. California, Colorado, and North Dakota have the broadest language, covering most lawful activities, while New York also names political involvement and recreation.

“This isn’t about smoking it’s about privacy,” said Wendy Wagenheim, press officer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, which is working on drafting a state lifestyle law.

Weyco president Howard Weyers, who dismissed four of his 200 employees when the smoking ban went into effect in January, insists that his policy will save lives. “It’s not about what people do at home,” he wrote in a column that ran in USA today this month. “It’s about the acceptance of personal responsibility by people we choose to employ.”

He cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics of $75 billion a year lost in the United States to smoking-related problems and $82 billion in lost productivity, saying that as a health benefits administrator, Weyco has to “take the lead.”

But he goes too far. So do communities that prohibit smoking on the beach, golf courses, and other outdoor areas.

The Massachusetts law prohibiting police officers and firefighters hired after 1988 from smoking on or off the job might also be seen as heavy-handed but can be defended as a compromise between legislators and unions to lower disability costs for professions in which heart and lung diseases are a hazard.

The people working for Weyco do not face such hazards, but they are facing a 2005 version of Big Brother and providing a lesson in how much control a dictatorial employer might exert over workers’ private lives.

“Smoking is not a civil right,” Weyers wrote. “It’s just a poor personal choice.”

True enough. But people should be able to make that choice in private and keep their jobs. The employer should judge the work, not the lifestyle. Just because lifestyle meddling is legal and “good” for people doesn’t make it right.


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