What’s the more important freedom: The freedom to smoke or an employer’s freedom to not hire a smoker?
In South Carolina, it is against the law to fire someone because they smoke while not on the job. But the S.C. Hospital Association, citing statistics that say smoking costs the state $1.9 billion a year in productivity losses, says it should have the freedom to not hire smokers.
State Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, agrees with the Hospital Association. His proposed bill, which will have a public hearing before a state Senate subcommittee this week, would repeal the state’s 23-year-old law that protects smokers in the workplace.
Many S.C. cities and counties ban smoking in workplaces, including bars and restaurants. But South Carolina does not ban public smoking statewide.
Tobacco companies say if the state Legislature will not make smoking illegal in public, it has no business allowing companies to decide whether to not hire – or possibly fire – people based on whether they smoke.
“Adult consumers who use a legal product – and the key (phrase) there is ‘a legal product’ – on their own personal time should be able to do so. We don’t think that hiring or firing decisions should be made for or against those individuals because they choose to use a legal adult product, whether it’s tobacco, whether it is alcohol, whether it is something else,” said David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA.
Smokers can cost companies more in health-care costs than non-smokers.
South Carolina state employees who smoke pay between $40 and $60 more for their health-insurance premiums than non-smokers. And smoking leads to $1.1 billion in health-care costs in S.C. every year, including $393 million paid by the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
That is one reason the S.C. Hospital Association is pushing to repeal the current law that protects smokers.
“Use of tobacco products results in higher absenteeism, lost productivity and increased costs for employers,” the association said in a position paper last year. “As hospitals and other employers continue to face escalating costs in providing health insurance to their employees, the ability to choose to hire someone who uses tobacco is being credited by hospitals in other states for stabilizing employee health-care costs and creating a more productive work force.”
Bryant’s proposal will be before a state Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry subcommittee Wednesday. It is unclear how much support it has. So far, Bryant is listed as the bill’s only sponsor.
“I’m just giving him a hearing so folks can be heard on it,” said committee chairman Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee. “Just because it is on the subcommittee agenda doesn’t mean they will take any action on it.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.