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ADVANCE Perspective: Respiratory Views

Does Your Résumé Say 'Non-Smoker'?

Published April 28, 2011 8:30 AM by Valerie Newitt

"Smokers Need Not Apply." That sign was theoretically hoisted by the human resources department at St. Luke's Hospital & Health Network in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley one year ago.

The network consists of five hospitals and some 7,000 employees serving 46,000 patients annually. St. Luke's is the second largest employer in that region, so when it implemented a nicotine-free hiring policy, more than a few sparks flew.

Yet no one was more surprised at the pushback than Robert Zimmel, vice president of human resources at the health network and architect of the smoke-free employees ideal.

"We're a health care organization, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. We grandfathered existing employees who smoked, so no one lost their job," Zimmel explained. "But going forward, we would only hire non-smokers. I didn't think there would be any reaction at all."

Speaking at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia last week, Zimmel said reactions came swiftly and promptly, beginning with front page headlines the very next day. They were followed by invitations to appear on national news programs. He accepted the opportunity to appear on Shephard Smith's Fox News segment, and was a bit disconcerted by the host's line of questioning.

"What's next? Are you going to ban employees who jump out of planes because they are an insurance risk?" asked Smith.

"I never saw exact statistics on that," retorted Zimmel, "but I know for sure that smoking causes disease."

It's interesting how people throw stones at a health organization seeking to employ healthy individuals. Yet even Zimmel noted that indeed this was not all about health. There were also cost considerations: Statistics show that smokers lose an average of 6 work days a year, almost twice the absenteeism of those who have never smoked, and are twice as likely to be limited in the type and amount of work they can handle. Clearly, the promise of fewer sick days, no smoking breaks, and lower health insurance costs all added up to good fiscal sense.

But there was still more to it than that, said Zimmel -- an underlying philosophy of healing-by-example. "At the end of the day, I feel proud at the decision to go nicotine-free because I knew it was the right thing to do. And I'd do it all over again," said Zimmel. Furthermore, he said the hospital has had absolutely no problem recruiting employees. "There are many quality professionals out there who do not smoke. We have had no problems whatsoever. None."

3 comments

I say cut the costs but be careful not to cut quality. I am a non-smoker but if I were a manager how might I feel not hiring the best?

Cindy, RT - Hospital July 17, 2011 8:21 PM
Menomonee Falls WI

Good for Lehigh Valley for taking this stand. Nothing worse than a health care worker who stinks of tobacco taking care of patients.

Do your self and your patients a favor and quit today! You can do it.

Kathleen, Research - CCRC, PAA May 3, 2011 2:44 PM
Summit NJ

Gee, what about obese and overweight people?  They certainly incur larger health costs as well.  What about sexually active gay men?  Or sexually active people in general?  

The point is when you start dictating about one aspect of someone else's lives...that line is a slippery slope to others.

And since this is coming from an employer... the coercive economic power is evident for all to see.

Jason Weingartner May 3, 2011 12:21 PM

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