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Pasco plan to ban smoking may not come with cash savings

NEW PORT RICHEY — Hoping to save money, Pasco County wants to trim some nagging expenses:

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Smokers.

Yes, smokers need more medical care and take more sick days, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A smoker costs nearly $3,400 a year in extra medical costs and lost productivity.

So, keep them off Pasco's 2,300-person workforce and the savings will roll in, right?

Wrong.

Major health insurance companies say they don't offer a discount for employers who bar smokers. And other government agencies that have adopted such a policy cannot pinpoint any savings.

"It has not been an industry standard to offer a discount for not hiring smokers, simply because the data-gathering would be so difficult," said Valerie Rubin, spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, the state's largest insurer.

If officials approve the policy this summer, Pasco would join a small but growing resistance to hiring smokers, particularly in the public sector. Tampa Bay area sheriff's offices already bar tobacco users from their payrolls, and firefighters aren't supposed to smoke by state law.

Healthier? Yes. More productive? Maybe. Thriftier? Well ...

In 1995, the Florida Supreme Court upheld North Miami's hiring ban on smokers (unlike 30 other states, Florida doesn't have any kind of smokers' rights law). But the city dropped the policy five years ago. Officials realized they needed a bigger applicant pool, and they could not find any savings from the ban.

Pinellas and Pasco counties' sheriff offices say they can't show a savings after several years of turning smokers away. And the rising costs of health care have dwarfed any savings the policy brought Atlantic Beach, a city of 13,000 near Jacksonville.

"If they're looking to cut costs so much, why don't they just stop having 75 meetings to determine who's going to buy pencils?" scoffed Kevin Holobaugh, 46, a two-pack-a-day smoker from New Port Richey.

But Pasco's leading advocate for the policy, County Commissioner Michael Cox, said whatever the savings, reducing smoking "is the right thing to do."

According to the CDC, part of the cost of smoking is $1,700 in lost productivity per worker per year. Besides a healthier workforce, officials in communities with hiring bans say the workforce can become more productive. They miss less work. And ultimately, the health care claims decrease — helping lower rates.

But for now, the discounts mainly go to self-insured employers, who cover the total health insurance risk, and people who buy individual policies.

Only 1 percent of employers specifically bar tobacco users, according to a national survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in January 2006. But the share of employers who prefer to not hire smokers rose to 7 percent from 4 percent two years earlier.

Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce officials said they've seen no trend in local businesses embracing such a ban, although national companies such as Union Pacific have made headlines for not hiring smokers.

With property tax revenue dropping, more public agencies are stepping into the debate. Naples officials recently discussed it, as did Melbourne a few years ago. Cox modeled Pasco's proposal after a policy Sarasota County adopted in May, in which job applicants must take a nicotine test. (Current employees are exempt from the ban.)

"It started to make sense for the county, particularly to show that when tax revenues are being scrutinized, that we're doing something to save money," said Sarasota benefits manager Steve Marcinko, who expects to realize the $3,400-per-worker savings projected by the CDC.

But smoker Kirk Petrunak, 46, of Dunedin said such a policy doesn't make sense: It makes for discrimination. Other unhealthy habits, such as overeating or alcohol use, aren't being targeted. And current employees who smoke could keep on puffing — they would be grandfathered in.

Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said banning other vices could be dicey: obesity, for instance, can be influenced by genetics. But he said because of the potential savings, barring smokers is "the best choice you can make because of health care costs and what it does to co-workers, taxpayers and constituents who come to the county."

Critics, however, argue the payoff isn't there.

"I think the way they're doing it, it won't produce any kind of immediate savings," said Joseph Barton, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents smokers in discrimination cases. "The troubling thing is, the people we're seeing right behind the smokers is people who are overweight. Where does this end?"

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Pasco plan to ban smoking may not come with cash savings 06/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 23, 2008 5:07pm]
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