Where there's smoke, there's fired: Gwinnett hospital snuffs out tobacco

When Gwinnett Medical Center said it would no longer hire tobacco users, it joined a short list of Georgia hospitals and other employers going that far in strengthening their smoking policies.

The Gwinnett changes, enacted July 1, drew praise from those who say hospitals should practice what they preach about good health.

But Gwinnett Medical went further, cracking down on enforcing an existing policy that prohibits workers from smoking on hospital grounds. After a few warnings, an employee could lose their job, Steve Nadeau, the hospital's senior vice president for human resources, said.

Moreover, Gwinnett Medical is discouraging existing employees from taking cigarette breaks or coming back from lunch smelling of cigarette smoke, Nadeau said.

Smoking rights groups and worker rights attorneys slammed the moves as a form of discrimination. They say workers' habits should be their own business so long as they don't interfere with their work performance. They also worry about what they see as employers' increasing efforts to dictate their employees' activities outside of the workplace.

Nadeau said the changes demonstrate the hospital's commitment to good health. The new policy affects work applicants who smoke and chew tobacco products. Employment applications will ask whether they use tobacco products and applicants will be screened during a drug test, Nadeau said.

The tobacco policy changes also apply to current employees. "We don't need workers coming back to the hospital with smoke on their clothes and treating patients," Nadeau said. "There is no such thing as a smoking break. ... If they come back smelling of smoke, that's going to be a problem."

Gwinnett Medical spokeswoman Andrea Wehrmann said that no specific policy prohibits the smell of tobacco on clothing. "However under our progressive disciplinary policy supervisors have the right to give out warnings to employees who smell of smoke for wrongful conduct on the job," she said. Several warnings can result in the worker being dismissed, she said.

Already at Gwinnett Medical, employees who smoke pay more for health insurance. A worker with a single-person policy pays an extra $20 every two weeks, and a worker with a family policy pays about $60 extra in that period.

Employees do not pay more for health insurance for any other risky behaviors or health issues, including obesity,  Wehrmann said.

Nadeau said his conversations with other metro Atlanta officials revealed other hospitals are considering a ban on employing smokers.

Emory Healthcare officials have discussed the prospect and not made any final decision,  spokesman Lance Skelly told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. DeKalb Medical implemented the policy not to hire smokers in November, but the hospital continues to allow workers to smoke in designated areas outside of the hospital facility.

At Gwinnett Medical in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, no workers were spotted smoking on the campus. Numerous signs had been posted, saying, "This is a smoke free campus. Smoking is not allowed on the grounds." A smoker who is determined to take a puff would have to walk a hundred yards or more.

The new policies elicited mixed response from hospital workers and visitors.

"I think it's a great idea," said Ina Butuc, a specialty technician in the cardiology department. Munching on a salad at a picnic table outside the hospital cafeteria, she said the smoking ban protects workers' health.

Added registered nurse Joan Mallari, "We have people here with respiratory problems."

Joseph Moutray of Lawrenceville, visiting his mother who was having surgery, grabbed a smoke in the company parking lot. He questioned the legality of not hiring someone because they smoke.

"As long as they don't smoke near patients, it shouldn't affect them," he said.

Policies that preclude smokers from being hired are causing controversy outside of Georgia. Several states have passed laws that protect smokers from job discrimination. Amanda Farahany, an Atlanta workers rights attorney, does not expect such a law would be passed in the state. She said the Gwinnett Medical hiring policy could raise legal questions if a job applicant is in the process of recovering from tobacco use but still has nicotine in their system.

Farahany also said she worries about the increasing crackdown on smoking in the workplace, seeing these efforts as invasive attempts to control workers' activities outside the workplace. She said a worker should be able to smoke on a break, and, if needed, change their uniform before returning to their duties.

The new policy drew praise from the Georgia Hospital Association, with spokesman Kevin Bloye saying hospitals "are trying more and more ways to discourage smoking, and they're connecting that to the pocketbook."