Job Applicant Nicotine Testing Raises Host of Legal Issues

Geisinger Health System, a hospital network which employs 15,000 people, recently announced that it will no longer hire job applicants who test positive for nicotine. This decision has opened the door to debate over whether or not discrimination against applicants who smoke, are obese or have chronic medical conditions is legal.

Geisinger will now treat tobacco as an illegal drug-if an applicant tests positive, they will not be considered for a position with the company. Geisinger claims that its decision reflects an interest in improving employee health and workplace environmental conditions, but reducing the amount of employees who smoke may reduce Geisinger's health insurance costs, too. The company spends about $100 million per year on employee health care.

A Slippery Slope

Some experts believe that testing for nicotine and discriminating against smokers opens the door to discrimination against other legal but unhealthy conditions. Screening for illegal drugs is a common practice in the interview process, but smoking, though harmful to one's health, is not an illegal activity, and discriminating against an applicant who is not breaking any law concerns legal experts. They believe that discriminating against smokers may open the door to companies screening job applicants for obesity and health conditions.

Of primary concern is that such discrimination may be in violation of individual rights, since smoking, being obese and having a chronic condition are not violations of any law. There is also concern that discrimination based on obesity and other conditions may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects those with disabling medical conditions against job discrimination.

Discriminating against smokers, the obese and those with medical conditions could have economical and intellectual consequences for companies. Such discrimination may not be popular with customers or the general public and create a backlash. It also removes good candidates from the job pool and may compel companies to hire someone who is under-qualified or ill-suited for the position.

Questions of Legality

Geisinger's decision to discriminate against job applicants who smoke raises important legal issues and may open the door to discrimination against those with other unfavorable conditions like obesity and chronic illness. Fortunately, those with a chronic medical condition are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but whether or not those who are obese or smoke have legal protection against employment discrimination is still up for debate.

If you or a loved one has been discriminated against due to nicotine use illness or obesity, please consult and experienced employment law attorney to explore your legal options.