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Will smokers be welcome as Largo employees? Maybe not

Like car salesmen and politicians, smokers these days are about as popular as poison ivy.

We've kicked them out of restaurants and sent them slinking outdoors. Those of us who (smugness alert) Do Not Smoke walk fast past workers huddled outside office buildings — in the rain, even — lest the smell stick to us.

The movement keeps spreading: Tampa General will soon join hospitals nationwide in nixing lighting up anywhere there, which kind of makes sense, it being a hospital and all.

And now we have the city of Largo, considering what would be number 52 in the employee code of conduct: an all-out ban on hiring anyone who smokes, to begin Oct. 1.

Its police and fire departments already have the policy, so this would mean "hiring tobacco-free everybody," human resources director Susan Sinz says.

The bottom line, supporters say, is the bottom line. Smoking costs, and they have stats: It's the leading preventable cause of death, and U.S. businesses pay an extra $3,391 per smoker per year in medical costs and lost productivity. Cut smoking, reduce insurance claims and have healthier workers.

And, yes, should this policy pass, current employees who smoke would be grand­fathered in. (Did you just hear a collective sigh of relief?)

From the other side is the live-free-or-die, don't-touch-my-transfat, what's-next-hiring-only-blue-eyed-blonds argument. Yes, you've got to watch that slippery slope, obesity being the next frontier.

But obesity doesn't include secondhand smoke, a health hazard to those who don't. And I admit I tend to lose my libertarian sensibilities on this subject because I hate what cigarettes do to people I like.

So what does Largo think?

Mayor Pat Gerard called it a swell idea given insurance costs through the roof. Commissioner Gigi Arntzen said it was a good move both for insurance and employee health.

Other commissioners are less convinced, given that potential slippery slope.

Mary Gray Black says she doesn't think the city should restrict what employees do outside of work, and Harriet Crozier said some commissioners had concerns about the "giant step" of refusing to hire someone because he or she smokes.

Which should make for an interesting discussion when they take it up again Sept. 7.

To see how this might work, I called the Palm Beach County Tax Collector's Office, which went employee tobacco-free last year. It was clear from the get-go things might be a tad unorthodox there: The recorded voice on the phone sings to you and promises "the ungovernment experience," and the website lists one employee's title as "Goddess of Excellence and Opportunity" (and, no, I did not make that up.)

Tax Collector Anne Gannon says the program has gone very well. Not only doesn't she hire smokers, those grand­fathered in pay more in insurance (and, ouch). Her office has "a pretty aggressive wellness program" including yoga equipment and meetings at which they, also not making this up, dance.

It's about insurance costs, yes. But Gannon is also frank in naming another reason: Both her parents died from smoking-related illnesses.

As for Largo? We'll see if for smokers, the air gets a little cleaner and the world a little smaller.

Will smokers be welcome as Largo employees? Maybe not 08/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 8:50pm]

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