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ADVANCE Perspective: Nurses

Does Your Résumé Say 'Non-Smoker'?

Published April 27, 2011 7:39 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."


As an ex-smoker (quit 1990) I feel that if we can ask the patient to abstain from smoking then we can do the same-when at work.  No smoking at work makes sense but what you do at home seems sacred to me.  I would prefer everyone quit, but that is their choice.  Because where does it stop?  I quit smoking but gained 35 pounds.  Will they fire me for that?  What if I drank beer when I watched football every week?  Oops, I have diabetes type 2.  This is intrusion into peoples private lives and it is not appropriate.

Donna Skelton, , RN unemployed but looking May 15, 2011 5:40 PM
Birmingham AL

Tobacco and alcohol are very different.  There hasn't been a link between tobacca and performance like alcohol and say DUI's.  I work with people who smoke and yes, not being healthy health care providers.  But they are excellent health care providers and they aren't the ones that chronically call in and miss work. Smoke free campuses are a better alternative.  Ford isn't going to not hire a qualified individual just b/c they drive a Toyota or Coke not hire because they drink Pepsi on their own time. Just saying that that hopspital is walking a fine line. Especially since smokers were "grandfathered" in.  kudos for not firing them, don't really think they could legally. But seriously, not legal to ask if someone is a least I don't believe so. Personal choice and all. Just like drinking,religion,diet habits......

Heather, L&D - RN May 3, 2011 9:38 AM

"But dicriminating against a legal habit?"

You must be a nicotine addict or a tobacco industry shill.

Alcohol is a legal habit, but it's banned at work too. Would you be outraged if a colleague was fired because he/she tested positive for alcohol at work?

Smoking is the leading cause for America's top three causes of death combined - heart disease, cancer, and COPD.

As someone whose career is dedicated to promoting optimal health, wouldn't you think it appropriate that you should be against the leading cause of preventable death in the world?

Other companies have banned their employees from using competitor's products because it reflects poorly on their goals. Would you be as outraged if Coca Cola fired an employee for drinking Pepsi while conducting deliveries? Wouldn't Ford frown on an employee driving a Toyota to one their corporate engagements? Of course not.

So, then why are you upset when hospitals expect their employees to be nicotine-free? Get real.

Like I said, only a nicotine addict or someone whom profits from the tobacco industry would be upset.

Smoking Blows April 30, 2011 12:10 AM

Seems like discrimination to me!  Yes, smoking causes health does alcohol,bad diets, obesity,sun bathing,stress,uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure,pregnancy,artificial sweetners,.....I could go on and on.  What about those healthy people that suddenly drop dead from a heart attack?  Make the move to a smoke free campus like my hospital has done.  I mean is it really legal to ask new hires about their smoking status and not hire b/c of that?  And do they now keep a detailed list of their current employees who smoke and got grandfathered in? How many lied in fear of their job before they knew they wouldn't lose it?   Gotta finish my last glass of wine in case I ever have to answer for that on a job application!

Heather, L&D - RN April 28, 2011 4:27 AM

And next, people who enjoy a glass of wine?  Eat unhealthy diets? Use salt in excess? Are overweight? Too much coffee? Artificial sweetners? Hell, even getting pregnant can cause health problems that cause people to miss work.  What about health nuts who drop dead of heart attacks for no apparent reason. The list goes on to things that can cause disease or contribute to health problems. Yes, smoking is bad for your health.  I can see a smoke free campus, my hospital has gone to that. But dicriminating against a legal habit?  How many people are gonna lie to get a job for something as simple as a personal habit even though it causes health problems? seems like discrimination to me! Guess this my last glass of wine in case the next thing is alcohol consumption!

Heather Ritter, L&D - RN April 28, 2011 4:20 AM

No one is crying about how employers can deny someone a job for having bad credit, so until we fix that huge issue (one that borders on discrimination), I think we can afford to let Mr. Zimmel make practical, smart decisions concerning his staff.

Christopher April 27, 2011 1:46 PM

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