smokingCompanies that have instituted policies to hire only non-smokers are nothing new. Indeed, the trend started several decades ago. But recently, the stop-smoking movement seems to have picked up steam – emerging in places as diverse as the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the Russian Parliament.

Penn Medicine joined a number of other health systems when it announced last week that it would no longer hire smokers because it wants to provide a healthier environment for both patients and staff as well as save on employee health insurance. In an earlier blog post on this topic, Wharton health care management professor Kevin Volpp agreed that such measures will most likely lower insurance premiums for health care systems.

Along those lines, a Penn Medicine website titled, “Toward a Tobacco Free Future,” notes that current employees who are tobacco users “can expect to pay a high premium on their health care benefit if they are not actively enrolled in a smoking cessation program or nicotine replacement therapy.” According to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the 11% of health system employees who acknowledged using tobacco products are required to pay an extra $15 every two weeks for their health coverage.

The website also points to research showing that “tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the U.S., imposing a huge health and financial burden on families and businesses. Employees who smoke cost, on average, $3,391 more a year for health care. In addition, smoke breaks during work may be disruptive and subject patients/colleagues to the unpleasant smell of smoke on employees’ scrubs and clothing.”

Penn Medicine currently offers a number of smoking cessation programs and classes for its approximately 17,500 employees.

Meanwhile, an article in today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday signed into law an anti-tobacco bill which bans smoking in public places like government buildings, schools, hospitals and restaurants. The bill, passed by both houses of Parliament — “despite fierce resistance from the world’s four largest international tobacco companies, which control 90% of the Russian market”– also bans cigarette advertising. According to the Journal, about 40% of Russians smoke.

Back in the U.S., some smokers and non-smokers alike question whether a policy of hiring only non-smokers is discriminatory. Not according to the Penn Medicine website, which states: “Users of tobacco are not in a legally protected class. Non-tobacco hiring policies are legal in 21 states including Pennsylvania. In 1987 a federal [appeals court] ruled that smokers are not a ‘protected class’ entitled to special legal protections and that courts need no further rationale than the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette cartons: Cigarette smoking is hazardous to your health.”

The statement goes on to note that the policy does not apply to current or future employees working for practices in New Jersey. Currently, 29 states – including New Jersey — and Washington, D.C., have laws that protect smokers’ rights.

David Grande, a professor of medicine at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and a fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, applauds Penn Medicine for “sending a positive public health message and working to create a healthier work place.” His only concern, he adds, comes from the fact that Penn employs a large number of local residents “from neighboring low-income communities, where smoking rates tend to be higher than in other neighborhoods. I would hope that the new policy does not prevent Penn from hiring these people, and that it remains a strong employer of the local community.”

As for whether the University of Pennsylvania as a whole is considering implementing a program of hiring only non-smokers, Terry Ryan, a manager in Penn’s Human Resources Division, notes that while the university supports Penn Medicine’s efforts, it is not considering a similar policy at this time. She adds that Penn currently offers a number of smoking cessation programs for employees throughout the university.