By Elizabeth Simpson The Virginian-Pilot November 17, 2011
Bon Secours hospitals throughout Virginia will institute a “nicotine-free hiring policy” starting Nov. 30, refusing to hire people who test positive for use of tobacco products.
The hospital system, which has facilities in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News, had prohibited smoking and the use of tobacco products on its campuses since 2009, but this takes their wellness initiative one step further.
Current employees will not be affected by the policy. The hospital system, which also has facilities in the Richmond area, will continue to offer smoking cessation classes and other support to help employees quit the habit.
Bonnie Shelor, senior vice president of human resources for Bon Secours VirginiaHealth System, said the policy is an extension of the hospitals’ mission to model good health practices.
“Bon Secours stands for good health, and we believe in creating a culture of wellness,” she said. “Patients come into the organization and we want them to have an environment that is aligned with our ministry of good health.”
Applicants for positions at Bon Secours hospitals will be tested for nicotine as part of the pre-employment screening process.
Bon Secours, which employs 12,000 people, is the first health care organization in the region to implement such a policy, but it’s a growing trend. Tobacco use has been linked to cancer, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma and emphysema.
Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville adopted a similar policy in 2010, before it became part of the Sentara Healthcare system this summer. Cleveland Clinic stopped hiring smokers in 2007, and Baylor Health Care System in Texas will begin such a policy in 2012.
Sentara Healthcare spokeswoman Becky Lawson said that organization has nothing in the works for a similar policy for its hospitals. Sara Arnold, spokeswoman for Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, said that campus doesn’t either, nor does Eastern Virginia Medical School. Each of those medical campuses, though, is smoke-free, and offers smoking cessation support.
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said there no Virginia laws restricting a company from adopting such a policy. Still, he said the ACLU has concerns about work policies that intrude on an employee’s private life.
“If it’s not prohibited by law,” he said, “can they also dictate what you eat and whether you exercise? When people think about it in that context, it concerns them a great deal.”
Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, said that he supports smoke-free medical campuses but that bans on hiring nicotine users unfairly discriminate against employees for a legal activity they do outside of work.
“It’s making a decision on factors that have nothing to do with qualifications for the job,” he said. “It’s singling out one particular vice and saying, ‘That vice is not OK. You can eat all you want, you can not exercise, you can drink alcohol and not wear a seat belt and that’s OK. You just can’t smoke.’ ”
Siegel also questions whether the policy will unfairly penalize people who are using nicotine patches to stop smoking.
Shelor, though, said the policy has been reviewed by internal and external lawyers and also has been vetted by the Catholic health system’s mission and ethical committees during the past nine months. Shelor estimated that 10 percent of Bon Secours employees currently smoke. About 300 employees quit smoking after the system went to smoke-free campuses in 2009.
Applicants who do not pass the nicotine test can reapply for positions once they are nicotine-free for six months. Local Bon Secours hospitals include DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth and Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News.
Screening out smokers is an idea that struck Virginia Beach employer Jon Wheeler years ago. Wheeler is president and CEO of Wheeler Interests, a shopping center company headquartered in Virginia Beach with 34 employees.
He implemented a no-smoking hiring policy in November 2006 after observing smokers taking cigarette breaks during the workday. He believed that the smell was a turn-off to potential customers and that it took time away from work:
“It became apparent to me that it wasn’t fair to the other associates who were not smoking.”
Wheeler also felt the health problems associated with smoking were increasing insurance costs.
He did some legal research and discovered he could implement a hiring policy that screened out smokers. He doesn’t test applicants for nicotine, as Bon Secours is going to do, but during job interviews he asked them if they smoked.
“I think most people are honest and upfront about it,” Wheeler said.
He said he still has employees who smoke, because they were hired prior to the policy. In one situation, an employee asked if Wheeler would pay the $500 it would cost for smoking cessation classes that used hypnosis. He said he wouldn’t pay the money upfront, but that if she paid for it, he would pay her $100 for every month she went smoke-free until she earned the money back.
She agreed to that, and “to this day, she’s smoke-free,” Wheeler said.
Shelor said that reaction to the Bon Secours policy has been mainly positive from the community, doctors and employees.
“They recognize it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “Yes, there have been people who disagree, but we still believe it is the right thing to do, and we will stay the course.”
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