Editorial: MU Health Care’s nicotine-free policy an unnecessary overreach

The problematic policy would ban new employees from using legal products.

MU Health Care recently announced starting on Jan. 1, it will no longer hire nicotine users. While current employees will not be affected by the new policy, future applicants will be asked whether or not they use nicotine products and will be drug tested upon applying. Current employees who are nicotine users will be “grandfathered in” and exempt from the policy.

We recognize that this policy was founded in good intentions. When put into place, it might successfully help some members of our community begin to live a healthier lifestyle. However, we think it’s an unnecessary overreach into potential employees’ lives and sets a risky precedent for hiring practices and stipulations in the UM System.

Refusing to hire smokers could be construed as discrimination. With this policy, a qualified candidate applying to work at an MU Health Care facility could be denied a position if they used any nicotine products, including smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes. Employees should be hired based on their ability to perform, not based on a personal decision they can legally make.

In the news release announcing the new policy, MU Health Care Chief Operating Officer Mitch Wasden is quoted saying that in order to improve the health of patients and the community, staff members at MU Health Care need to “lead by example.”

We think that employees in this institution can perform well in their positions without being role models in their personal lives. For example, if a doctor has received 12 or more years of medical training in order to diagnose, treat and give medical advice to patients, will their smoking habits really affect their ability to do their jobs?

If staff members are expected to “lead by example” at MU Health Care, then why is this policy only affecting future employees? The stated goal of this policy is to create an environment where employees can be seen as role models. By allowing existing employees to continue smoking, MU Health Care is contradicting its own goal.

Another noticeable problem with this policy is that nicotine products such as cigarettes, chew and e-cigarettes are legal in the United States and in the state of Missouri, which funds MU Health Care. Turning away employees who use these products opens the door to not allowing employees to use other legal “unhealthy” products. Alcohol has negative effects on individuals’ health, as does an unbalanced, unhealthy diet. By enforcing this nicotine-free policy, MU Health Care is blurring the lines concerning what are acceptable and unacceptable lifestyle and behavioral choices for employees.

All MU Health Care facilities have been smoke-free since 2006, according to the news release. MU’s campus has been smoke-free since July 2013. Theoretically, if an employee of MU Health Care was to smoke, it would be within the privacy of their own home or car, or far away from MU facilities. If an employee wants to legally smoke, chew or vape, they should be able to. It doesn’t directly affect patients or customers, thus allowing employees to still lead by example.

We think that there are better ways for MU Health Care to go about promoting healthy lifestyles among its staff. For example, as part of the its 2015 Wellness Incentive, the UM System has created an incentive program where taking part in healthy activities helps staff members gain points, and a certain number of points will lead to a raise. Focusing on these positive initiatives help promote healthy lifestyles without enforcing a problematic hiring policy.

We understand the rationale behind this incentive and we agree employees of a health care system should be healthy members of society. But there are better, more inclusive ways of creating this healthy environment than barring potential staff members from employment because of a bad habit.

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