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Fire Up; Get Fired?

When it comes to helping smokers quit, we should be offering compassion and understanding, instead of unemployment and shame.

A Michigan-based heath care company recently fired four employees for refusing to take a test to determine whether they smoke cigarettes. The company, Weyco Inc., adopted a policy that allows them to fire employees for smoking, even if the employees smoke after business hours or at home. The founder of the company, Howard Weyers, said the anti-smoking rule was designed to protect the company from high heath care costs. "I don't want to pay for the results of smoking," he said.

As a cigarette addict and someone who works on drug policy issues, I find this policy both discriminatory and offensive.

It is outrageous to fire someone for smoking cigarettes. Following this logic, you could fire people for eating fast food or riding motorcycles on the weekend. The fact that people smoke on their own time has no impact on their ability to do their jobs. In its initial press release on this issue, the Drug Policy Alliance claimed facetiously that overweight people would be the next target. Amazingly, the founder of Weyco promised to establish an anti-obesity policy at his company.

The company's CFO credits the policy with helping 14 of Weyco's smokers quit. The ends, however, don't justify the means. If you threatened to throw those cigarette smokers in jail you would probably persuade some of them to quit as well. When it comes to helping people deal with addiction, we should be offering compassion and understanding, instead of unemployment and shame.

Last week I was on numerous talk radio shows during which some hosts and listeners argued that private companies have the right to hire and fire their employees. Having the legal right to do this doesn't make it right. The message such actions send is that these companies value paternalistic control of their employees over the quality of their work.

There is a growing recognition that cigarette smoking is harmful to smokers and causes hundreds of thousands of deaths a year. With this awareness, many states have passed helpful legislation that will save people's lives. As a smoker I support many of these initiatives, including the bar and restaurant ban. Even though I would enjoy a cigarette while having a drink after work, I appreciate other people's right to a non-smoking environment.

Positive incentives like gym membership reimbursements, or cessation aids like the smoking patch or Nicorette gum can be valuable aids to those who struggle with their addictions. By firing workers for smoking, we will turn off smokers and anti-smoking allies, and drive them to support the tobacco industry, as well as alienate them from the truly live-saving measures we should be promoting.

Tony Newman is communications director for the Drug Policy Alliance .