Monday, October 27, 2008

Are there legal risks with smoking bans?

I had the privilege of speaking last week at the COSE 2008 Small Business Conference. I received a question on the legality of workplace policies that prohibit employees from smoking at all – during the work day, off work, anywhere, any time. As The Cincinnati Enquirer reports, there is a definite trend of businesses refusing to employ smokers. Companies view these policies are part of wellness programs that are used to control health insurance costs. Often, the programs not only prohibit smoking, but offer programs to smokers to aid in their efforts to quit:

Taking the employee wellness program to another level, a local company is refusing to hire smokers unless they enter a program to help them quit.

USI, the insurance and financial services company located downtown, started the program this year. The program applies only to new employees, who are tested when they are hired.

"We decided not to hire smokers because they add additional expense to our health plan and our ongoing operation," said Dennis Curran, chief human resources officer for USI's Midwestern region….

Nationally, the Scotts Miracle-Gro lawn-care company and the Cleveland Clinic have started similar programs. Locally, the Hamilton County Public Health agency also doesn't hire smokers.

29 states and the District of Columbia have so-called “smoker protection” laws – laws that elevate smokers to a protected class, making it illegal to discriminate against an employee because he or she smokes. Ohio is not such a state. Thus, in Ohio, there is nothing per se illegal about making employment decisions based on one’s status as a smoker.

As far as I know, this type of smoking ban has never been tested in an Ohio court. I have three thoughts, though, of possible laws that could be implicated by a blanket smoking prohibition:

  1. The ADA: The ADA and its Ohio counterpart protect “addiction” as a disability. For example, a company cannot terminate an employee because that employee has a record of drug or alcohol addiction, or is perceived as a drug addict. There is a potential claim out there that employees who are addicted to nicotine are protected by the ADA. However, to be legally disabled under the ADA, it is not enough to simply suffer from some affliction. That affliction must substantially limit a major life activity. While a smoker is often addicted to nicotine, I fail to see how that addiction could be a disability protected by the ADA.

  2. ERISA: Section 510 of ERISA prohibits employment actions taken with the specific intent of interfering with an employee’s ERISA benefits. Section 510, however, generally does not apply when the loss of benefits is a consequence of, but not a motivating factor behind, a termination of employment. There are lots of reasons why an employer may not want smokers in the workplace – the odor and the frequent smoke breaks are two reasons in addition to the added health costs. Moreover, the employee is not being hired because of an intent to interfere with health benefits, but the loss of benefits is coincident to the loss of employment. In other words, I think this claim has some sex appeal to it, but ultimately will fail on its merits.

  3. Privacy: Ohio has no law the specifically protects employees in their private, off-duty conduct. For the same reasons that drug testing is legal, smoking inquiries should also be legal. The remedy for an employee who does not want to answer questions about smoking habits, or have a smoking panel included in a workplace drug test, is to look for employment elsewhere.

I think there should be little risk in enacting a workplace smoke-out, but these legal theories are untested. For small and mid-sized businesses then, the question becomes if you want to be the business that get such a policy challenged. There is nothing wrong with taking aggressive HR positions and testing the bounds of permissible policies. Make no mistake, though, it is not a questions of if a terminated employee will challenge such a policy, but when, and you better be prepared to defend the policy in court. In other words, as a small or medium-sized employer, are you better off taking a risk and implementing even a relatively safe policy such as an employee smoking ban, or letting larger, richer businesses test the bounds of the law and follow their lead when a court upholds the policy as lawful?