Proposal would allow SC employers decline to hire smokers

abeam@thestate.comApril 9, 2013 

  • Smoking in South Carolina A quick look at the law

    Does the state of South Carolina ban smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars? No. But many cities and counties do.

    Does South Carolina have any laws governing smoking? Yes. The state bans employers from making hiring decisions based on whether a prospective employee smokes. But the S.C. Hospital Association wants the Legislature to repeal that law, allowing employers to decline to employ smokers.

    Why? Because employees who smoke cost the state billions of dollars in increased medical costs and lost productivity. Plus, hospitals always are telling patients not to smoke. They want to set an example by only hiring non-smokers.

    What do tobacco companies think about this? They don’t like it. If the state Legislature is not going to outlaw smoking – even in public places – why would it allow companies to not hire adults who are doing something that is legal?

    What’s the status of the proposal? A Senate subcommittee will have a public hearing on the proposal at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 209 of the Gressette Building at the Statehouse complex.

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.

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service