Help Wanted. No Smokers Need Apply (Ep. 123)

(Photo: Julie Bocchino)

Our latest podcast is called “Help Wanted. No Smokers Need Apply.”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

In many states (21, to be precise), it is perfectly legal for an employer to not hire someone who smokes. This might seem understandable, given that health insurance is often coupled to employment, and since healthcare risks and costs are increasingly pooled. And so: if employers can exclude smokers, should they also be able to weed out junk-food lovers or motorcyclists — or perhaps anyone who wants to have a baby?

That question is the thrust of this podcast, which features a conversation with Zeke Emanuel. He is a Penn medical professor/bioethicist; a former White House healthcare adviser; the author of Healthcare, Guaranteed (and Brothers Emanuel, about growing up with Rahm and Ari); and a coauthor, with Harald Schmidt and Kristin Voigt, of a recent New England Journal of Medical article (previewed on our blog) called “The Ethics of Not Hiring Smokers”:

EMANUEL: I’m a cancer doctor. I find smoking disgusting. I find smoking horrible. I wish that everyone who did it could quit. But I also recognize that it’s not voluntary, that most people start before they’re adults and that it’s incredibly hard to quit once you’ve started.”

Emanuel also appeared in an earlier Freakonomics Radio podcast, “Is the Obesity Epidemic for Real?” In this podcast, he argues that not hiring smokers lies somewhere between discriminatory and unethical. Give us a listen and let us know your thoughts.

Iljitsch van Beijnum

Haven't listened yet, but... inhaling carcinogens multiple times a day shows extremely poor judgment, and as such is incompatible with any job that requires sound judgment. For instance, here in the Netherlands the minister of health is a smoker. Even before she refused to take meetings with anti-smoking groups (but not so much the tobacco lobby) that disqualified her for that job in my opinion.

It would be pretty harsh to withhold (non-judgment-based) jobs from people who just can't seem to stop smoking, but anything we can do so kids don't start and perpetuate the problem is worth the short term pain. Existing smokers are going to die out at some point.

Rusty Shackleford

The same way existing drinkers will all die from cirrhosis and never be replaced. I find smoking a far less disgusting habit than hiring practices based mostly on a sense of moral superiority instead of merit.

Pedro Albuquerque

I smoke Habanos with great pleasure and have never been addicted. In fact, right now I haven't smoke for ten days because of a cold. Cigars are great with espresso coffee and Porto wine. Smoking a good cigar is a high point of my day.
I'm also an ethical vegetarian, exercise, have ideal BMI, and have excellent health for my age.
So let's exchange it for a while: companies stop worrying about smokers (after all there aren't many of us these days) and go face the real problem: getting rid of carnivores, right away!
Or maybe you would prefer a truce: keep your greasy hands out of my cigars, and I promise you that I'll keep my smoky hands out of your steaks.

Pedro Albuquerque

Correction: ..."haven't smoked"...


Love that post! Genious

Mark Jean

"Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded." ~ Abraham Lincoln December, 1840

Eric M. Jones

A perfect example of the argument by "False Equivalence".


An employer should be able to hire whoever they want for any reason. This is the basis of a free society with voluntary interactions. An employer will ultimately hire someone for the value they provide regardless of behavior as long as it is morally neutral like smoking. Anytime a law or regulation is introduced, we have allowed another element of coercion and force into our lives.

Rusty Shackleford

Assuming perfectly rational hiring practices, perhaps. Turning down potential employees based solely on whether or not they smoke is irrational, but unlikely to cause enough harm to the company for it to change its policy. A problem that won't self-correct seems to be a good reason to regulate.

Enter your name...

But they're not actually "turning down potential employees based solely on whether or not they smoke". It's not like they're saying "I need to hire 12 people, and here are the only 12 qualified candidates... Oops, he's a smoker, so I guess I can't fill that last slot."

They're actually saying, "I need to hire 12 people, and here are hundreds of qualified candidates... How can I make this pile of applications smaller, and ideally get employees who cost less overall and miss fewer days of work into the bargain?"

Carol Denney

Great piece! But one crucial element was left out -- smokers, unlike women, or members of an ethnic group, are NOT a protected class. Quitting may be difficult, but people do it all the time and it can be done.

Your piece seemed to equate discrimination against women for potential pregnancy with "discrimination" against smokers, and it is not legally possible because smokers can become nonsmokers a lot more easily than the rest of us can change race, gender, or turn in our cardiovascular systems for something that can tolerate secondhand smoke. Thanks,

Carol Denney

Byung Kyu Park

If the pregnancy example is a bad one, what about hiring practices against people who are obese? Or hiring practices against people who cannot work, for example, Friday evenings (usually for religious reasons)?

Fat people can become thin; Orthodox Jews can convert to another religion (or just stop practicing).

The real question is should there really be *any* categorical description (that doesn't imply law-breaking) that preemptively disqualifies a person from a job---especially when that category doesn't relate to job performance?

Janice Koch

You really should consult with a Human Resources professional before you go on record with this information. It discredits other of your facts that I held as truth in your book. Current tobacco use can be disallowed in most states, both on the job at in any off the job circumstances. And can be a legal motive for firing. Particularly if the job is health or safety related. Addiction to drugs is a legal reason to fire employees or to not hire employees unless the person is in a drug treatment program. Similarly, taking into consideration person's weight is, in most states not considered to be discriminatory for hiring and food could be considered to be an addiction in many people unless the reason for obesity is an ADA issue - genetic, depression, etc. You need to do some fact checking.


Except that you have now backed yourself into a discrimination corner. Why discriminate against nicotine drug use vs caffeine drug use. As long as you can do your job, what you do at home is your own business.


I can see both sides of this argument in the immediate employment context, and both sides have legitimate points. However, in the broader, macroeconomic context of employment, health and healthcare reform, I worry that normalization of these kinds of hiring policies could effectively act as a wedge to further marginalize the underclass and exclude them from the kind of assistance the Affordable Care Act is meant to provide. The sanctimonious way some Americans have taken to scapegoating sick and unhealthy Americans for problems with our healthcare system in recent years concerns me tremendously, and as part of health care reform I think it's only fair to have this conversation and consider the ramifications if employers are allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices based on employee health.


Smoking, in the privacy of my own room is exercising my choice of freedom. Just like that, if I own a business or I am the recruiter on behalf of a company, hiring specifically the smokers or specifically the non-smokers or taking my hiring decision without caring about smoking habit is my freedom. So I don't think it's any way unethical if I don't hire smokers. After all, given my manpower requirement, for every smoker I turn down, I will hire a non-smoker. So it's not even like there is a job loss or something. Just that I am taking the best decision for my own business according to my knowledge and belief. Why should someone regulate that? And if all the businesses start similar practice? That will lower the salary expectation of smokers and will give further incentive to hire smokers. So give freedom to the businesses, the system will keep the balance by itself.


Just listened to this podcast, another good one!

I just wanted to clarify a very key distinction in this whole debate. People seem to conflate the terms tobacco use vs smoker, but they are potentially very different. When my company implemented an insurance fee for smoking the insurance company made it very clear that it was for tobacco use, but the HR employees kept saying the term smoker. A smoker is a habitual user, whereby one could use tobacco products in a responsible manner. For instance, I personally smoke about 5 cigars a year. Basically a number so low that it would probably be impossible to say it has any deleterious health effects. At the very least, the health effects would pale in comparison to something like air pollution. However, I would be considered to be in violation of the policy for use of even 1 tobacco product.

I'm all for weening smokers (a habitual action) off of their pack or more a day habit, but when you start to regulate ALL tobacco products then that's a discriminatory action. I'd also like to see in a future episode a comparison of total lifetime health care costs to insurance companies for smokers vs non-smokers. I've seen arguments for both sides of the debate and I know where I stand on the issue, but I'd always be curious to hear another take.



Seems like my previous post created some confusion. I didn't try to defend smokers, or to defend those not hiring smokers. I tried to defend the freedom to smoke and the freedom to hire someone based on whatever criteria I want. I think it's time to appropriately define the word 'freedom' here. No matter how much I fight against discrimination, freedom is also important. That's why I am saying the employer should have his/her freedom to choose people. You smoke in your private time, that's your affair. But to hire you or not based on whatever criteria I want is my call. I am not telling you to quit smoking, I am telling I can't hire you and go to someone else. Don't say that smokers got a right to force managers to hire them to prove that they are not discriminating. Did I make it clear?


I think it's a fantastic idea to exclude candidates who don't fit your ideal employee in terms of personality and habits. For example, if you're hiring for a technology firm you may make it a point to not hire people who don't use smartphones or have wifi in their home.

If you're hiring for a fitness gym and you make it a point to not hire people who have little interest in healthy or active habits, even though they work behind a desk, I think that's okay.

Let's take a lesson from the Freakonomics books. Just as the kinds of people who have lots of books in their home have kids who are more likely to enjoy reading I would not want to hire the kinds of people who smoke cigarettes everyday. That kind of person has somewhat of an addictive personality, takes frequent breaks throughout the day to leave the building, in unable to break an obvious bad habit, and is not conscious of their spending habits.

If someone smokes socially or once in a while then I wouldn't pay attention to that, but someone who always has a pack of cigarettes on them is not someone I would want to work with.

All this being said, I would certainly not discriminate because of racial background, gender or ethnicity. In many situations I think discrimination is valid for certain religious beliefs, but since that's illegal, I would shy away from being openly discriminatory about it.

Also, since workplaces can administer drug tests, why can't they discriminate for cigarettes, seems along the same line to me. Asking someone if they are a pothead/alcoholic/chain smoker is out of line, but there's likely a formal way to do it.



It would be fine not to hire people we don't like - if different employers did not like various groups randomly and evenly. So that some positions are not available to smokers, some - to bike riders, and some - to women of childbearing age. Overall, everyone on the market would still have access to the vast majority of positions, if not at one company, than at another.

Unfortunately, our society has popular stereotypes stigmatizing just certain minority groups - smokers, women, people with tattoos, gays, etc. These groups get disproportionate amount discrimination, and severely limited opportunities because of that. That's not fair. It takes a government and a legal system to fix that unfairness.