Don't puff, don't tell?

November 8, 2010

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IF THE country’s most brilliant expert on computerizing medical records came for a job interview at the Massachusetts Hospital Association with Marlboros in her pocket, she wouldn’t get the job. Neither would President Obama. Or House Speaker-to-be John Boehner. As of January 1, the organization that represents the state’s hospitals will no longer hire smokers for its 45-person workforce.

As easy as it is to sympathize with the motivation behind this policy, it is deeply — and unconscionably — intrusive into workers’ private lives. An employer like the hospital association should not set requirements that have nothing to do with an applicant’s ability to meet the demands of the position.

On that score, the state was right in the 1990s to start prohibiting smokers from joining police and fire departments on the grounds that their habits would eventually make them physically unable to do their job. No one wants to have to rely on a wheezer in an emergency. But there is no such reason for the hospital group, a lobbying and training operation, to reject a candidate who, at home, likes to light up.

“We want a role model,’’ said association president Lynn Nicholas. She notes that smoking costs the Massachusetts economy $6 billion a year in health costs and lost productivity. The diseases that tobacco causes or worsens are far and away the most preventable and take the greatest toll in lives. Nicholas believes that if more employers adopted her policy it could be the factor that keeps young people from taking their first cigarette.

Nicholas is not moved by the fact that two of the country’s most powerful elected officials — Obama and Boehner — are smokers. “[Obama] wouldn’t be a good fit for my organization,’’ she says, “when someone else who is equally qualified would.’’ With all the challenges facing the state’s hospitals as they deal with public demands for reduced health costs, the association should not be turning away highly skilled staffers who happen to be nicotine-addicted.