Could You Be Fired for Lying About Your Smoking Habit?

At Whirlpool Corp. in Evansville, Ind., 39 factory workers, all who had claimed they were non-smokers to get a $500 discount on their company health insurance, were suspended without pay after they were seen smoking outside their factory.

They stand to lose their jobs.

In a written statement, the company said, "Whirlpool is just one of a growing number of companies waging war on unhealthy habits."

"Employers are right in there in the middle of that, and more of them are moving towards preventative health care kinds of situations that often can become very intrusive into people's lives," said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a nationwide outplacement firm.

At one Michigan health care benefits company, workers were told to quit smoking — even at home — or risk getting fired.


At Scott's Miracle-Gro, in Marysville, Ohio, workers who refused to submit to a full health screening, including blood work, were charged $40 a month.

And smoking won't fly at Alaska Air, where all job applicants are screened for nicotine.

Workers appear divided on the issue.

"I personally feel I shouldn't pay the same insurance as somebody who drinks a lot, doesn't eat properly and doesn't exercise," said Jon Decker, who works in real estate in Chicago.

"Don't think anyone should be able to be the keepers of the morality of what individuals do," Chicago businessman Frederick Smith said.

Companies say this is all about stopping the bleeding. Health care costs are soaring at twice the rate of inflation.

These so-called "wellness programs" are a carrot-and-stick approach to the problem.

When it comes to lighting up, 16 percent of large companies have stepped up programs to encourage employees to live a healthier lifestyle, giving non-smokers discounts on health insurance, according to the National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, published by Mercer.

Seventy-eight percent of companies offer some kind of health risk screening, and others take a tougher approach.

"Employers want to keep their health care costs down, to be competitive and they either charge smokers more, or increasingly, don't want to hire them," said John Banzhaf, executive director of the non-smokers rights group Action on Smoking and Health.

In 21 states, this type of discrimination — not hiring people who smoke — is perfectly legal. But it raises all kinds of questions about how much information your employer has the right to know.

"The question is where does it stop?" Challenger asked. "Do you say to people who want to go out on the beach and get sunburned that you're causing cancer? When do you stop?"

With more companies trying to control crushing costs, this may just be the start.