Bad Time for Smokers - The Missourian: Editorials

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Bad Time for Smokers

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Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 6:32 pm

It’s not a good time to be a smoker.

Last week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a $1-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes to address that state’s budget deficits. Other states have or are considering similar tax increases on tobacco products as a way to combat skyrocketing Medicare and Medicaid costs.

Politicians justify the increases on the grounds that smokers use a disproportionate amount of these government subsidized programs. The argument is that because smoking-related health care costs drive up Medicaid and Medicare spending, smokers should pay more of the freight.

They point to studies which show that tobacco users generally consume 25 percent more health care services than non-tobacco users.

The argument makes sense but it won’t fly here because Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon oppose any tax increase. Despite having the lowest cigarette tax in the nation at 17 cents per pack, our political leaders won’t budge on increasing the cigarette tax.

Gov. Quinn’s proposal may not pass either but efforts to target cigarette taxes to increase government coffers aren’t going away. Nor are the efforts to make restaurants, bars and other public spaces smoke free.

The anti-smoking movement has momentum. Any smoker will tell you they feel the heat.

Smokers in Calabasas, Calif., understand the prejudice. The town passed an ordinance banning smoking everywhere in the city except on private residential property. The smoking ban includes all streets, sidewalks, parking lots, parks and all other outdoor locations. There are a couple of exceptions. Smokers can light up if no other person is within 25 feet of them or they get permission from all other people within 25 feet.

So paying more for a pack of cigarettes may be the least of smokers’ worries going forward. More of a concern may be the bias against smokers in the employment arena.

Smoke-free workplaces have been the norm for years. But now there is a growing trend by employers to move toward smoker-free workplaces by refusing to hire smokers altogether.

The city of Fort Worth announced last week that it is considering not hiring smokers as part of an overall health care strategy. The city is pursuing a model that is already in place at some private businesses — especially health care facilities.

The Baylor Healthcare System stopped hiring smokers Jan. 1. A private hospital in Virginia requires every potential employee to submit to a nicotine test. If they test positive, they automatically become disqualified for the position. Labor experts expect this trend to continue.

Smokers already are penalized at some companies by having to pay more for their health insurance premiums. Wal-Mart employees can pay an insurance surcharge of up to $2,000 more a year for some health plans if they smoke.

Smokers say these policies are tantamount to employment discrimination. Smoking is, after all, still legal. What a person does outside of the workplace shouldn’t be a concern of their employer.

They fear that if these trends continue, employers will eventually be able to fire existing employees for smoking or other health issues like being overweight or having high cholesterol. Where does it end?

Those fears may be unfounded, but smokers — about one in five of all Americans — are definitely feeling the pressure exerted by the anti-smoking movement.

How bad is it for smokers?

Last week, Dr. Glenn Rechtine, an orthopedic surgeon, suggested that doctors refuse to perform joint replacement surgery on patients who smoke, based on a recent study that showed that smokers have a significantly higher rate of failure and complications. He made the statement at the annual meeting of the American Academy Orthopedic Surgeons. He mentioned that this rule has convinced 40 percent of his patients to stop smoking.

According to reports, none of the other surgeons echoed his sentiments. Not yet anyway.

/opinion/editorials