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I abhor smoking, but…

Some employers in Canada are refusing to hire smokers

By Todd Humber

Smoking has always been my biggest pet peeve. It’s a habit I’ve never understood, and perhaps that’s because I have asthma. It was hard enough to breathe as a kid without sucking smoke into my lungs, so I couldn’t grasp why anyone would want to do it. I still can’t. Plus, the smell — there aren’t many things worse.

I bristled when my mom sent me to the corner store to buy her cigarettes as kid — she would give me a note with her phone number on it, so the local shopkeeper knew they weren’t for me. (Ah, the early 1980s.)

And she’d bribe me with money to buy myself a pack of hockey cards in return for doing so. That worked, but I hated doing it. I always felt those hockey cards were tainted. Eventually I hit a breaking point, put my foot down and refused to trek to the corner store anymore to buy cigarettes. A 10-year-old’s gotta have principles.

I tell you all this so you can understand how hard it is for me to say this: I don’t think employers should be able to refuse to hire smokers. (See “Smokers need not apply,” on page 1 of the May 6 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.)

Those are hard words to type, because I get it. I understand completely why an employer would want to limit its workforce to non-smokers. I don’t need to pull out reports and statistics and studies about the health effects of smoking to justify it.

I’ve worked with enough people over the years who smoked, and witnessed the eye rolls when the smoker gets up to go outside for another cigarette while everyone else remains seated and working. Justified or not, most people would likely say that smokers take more breaks than non-smokers.

But smoking is already banned in almost every workplace in the country. Employees haven’t been able to light up at their desks — and how weird would that seem today? — for decades.

Sure, smokers will take smoke breaks. But employers are fully within their rights to limit those breaks to the standard ones all employees get and not let them wander away a dozen times per day.

Yes, smokers generally can expect to have more health problems than non-smokers. But there are plenty of after-hours habits that pose dangers to employee health. Drinking alcohol to excess, using illegal drugs or abusing prescription drugs or eating an all-fast food diet. Riding a motorcycle, skydiving or participating in extreme sports. All of those can cause disabilities or health problems, but there aren’t any ads that state “french fry eaters need not apply” or “adrenaline junkies not wanted.”

Plus, the legal landscape is far from settled. Given that there is no doubt addiction constitutes a disability, and it covers things like alcohol and marijuana, it’s not much of a stretch to think that addiction to nicotine would find a favourable ear from a court, arbitration board or tribunal.

Employers have a huge role to play when it comes to worker health. They can offer education and resources to help employees make smarter choices, which can pay huge dividends. That’s the best way to go when it comes to encouraging healthy behaviour, not outright bans on undesirable off-duty conduct.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information. 

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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