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Hiring nonsmokers: Good idea or a step too far?

No question, government needs to keep its laws off our bodies and its opinions about our personal decisions to itself, thank you very much. Live and let live, and all that.

But about that push in Pasco to hire only nonsmokers. Call me a hypocrite, but my first thought was: good.

In our continuing effort to squeeze every penny out of a nickel in tight times, Pasco County government is considering a policy of keeping those who smoke off the payroll.

While it appears the savings to follow might not exactly fill county coffers to the brim, surely any savings at all is welcome.

And who could argue against a healthier work force, fewer sick days and higher productivity?

But my personal prejudice goes beyond the familiar antismoker's abhorrence of inhaling noxious fumes wafting over from the next table on a restaurant patio. It's not just how your hair and clothes can stink all day after you've held your breath to run a gantlet of poor smokers huddled against the rain outside a downtown building.

Grow up in a house with heavy smokers, and you tend to develop a clear position on this. Want to make sure your kids don't smoke? Give them the chore of daily ashtray cleaning. Trust me on this.

Later, when someone you care about can't make it through the stress of chemo and radiation without his cigarettes, when he can't keep away from the very thing killing him, you find yourself hating those cigarettes, hating the amazing strength of that addiction. It hardens your view if not your heart. The blue on a pack of Newports still twists my stomach.

Months after my father died, my mother was gone, too, after fighting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD deaths, though my mother managed through the sheer strength that defined her to kick the habit years earlier.

So maybe I'm a little touchy on the subject.

A man who may be our next president has struggled with the habit. While I (obviously) will base my decision on infinitely bigger things, I did notice. And while I don't often make the prudish what-kind-of-example-does-this-set-for-America's-youth argument, in the case of the dynamic younger candidate, it's tempting.

Funny, I only recently realized that none of my closest friends smoke (though lots of people I like and respect and admire do). It wasn't a choice, at least I don't think so.

So should governments ban smokers?

Law enforcement agencies and fire departments have just reasons for no-smokers policies. Their employees need to be in good physical shape to get the job done, and smoking can steal your wind. If you're lucky, that's all it does.

But the practice of governments in general enforcing such bans sounds a little too much like rejecting potential employees because they are meat eaters or Scotch drinkers, because they are overweight or disabled.

A government no-smokers policy gets perilously close to the doctrine of It's For Your Own Good, possibly the five scariest words that could ever be uttered by those who make the rules.

We can't — or at least, shouldn't — mandate a personal, legal choice — even one that could kill you.

And you can't make people you care about quit. You can only hope they will.

Hiring nonsmokers: Good idea or a step too far? 06/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 4:29pm]

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