ST. LOUIS (AP) - A St. Louis-based health care organization will no longer hire smokers to work at any of its seven area hospitals, starting next month.
Job applicants at SSM Health Care will be asked if they have used tobacco in the last six months, and those who have will be eliminated from the hiring process, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday.
"As an organization that provides health care, we want to encourage our employees to take better care of themselves and set good examples for our patients," said Chris Sutton, an SSM spokesman.
Sutton said the new policy will save hospitals money because "healthier employees does mean lower health care costs."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each smoker costs a company an additional $3,400 a year in health care costs and lost productivity.
All SSM facilities have been smoke-free since 2004. Current employees who smoke will not be bound by the policy when they're off-duty.
The new policy applies only to SSM hospitals in Missouri. Nationwide, about 6,000 companies have stopped hiring smokers, according to National Workrights Institute, a New Jersey-based group dedicated to workers' rights issues. The practice for certain employers, including health care providers, is allowed in Missouri.
SSM officials plan to lobber for similar legislation in Illinois, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, where they operate other hospitals.
Workers' rights groups say the shift to a smoke-free work force could lead to similar crackdowns on legal yet unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol and eating fast food. Some also are concerned that such anti-smoking policies punish lower-paid employees such as janitors and cafeteria workers who are addicted to nicotine.
"If enough of these companies adopt these policies and it really becomes difficult for smokers to find jobs, there are going to be consequences," said Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health. "Unemployment is also bad for health."
Health care providers have led a recent trend away from employing smokers. The Cleveland Clinic stopped hiring smokers in 2007, and hospitals in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas have recently done the same.
St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau also only hires nonsmokers.
"We felt it was unfair for employees who maintained healthy lifestyles to have to subsidize those who do not," said Steve Bjelich, the hospital's chief executive. "Essentially that's what happens."
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com