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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Institutionalized Discrimination

There is a disturbing trend of frank discrimination based on a person's lifestyle choice. People who engage in a particular behavior face difficulty getting and keeping jobs, and they must prove to prospective employers that they do not engage in that behavior.

This particular behavior is associated with health issues, and according to a New York Times article about it, prospective employers are trying to promote a healthier workplace and minimize health care expenses.  You might think it would be a lifestyle choice that is associated with incurable and transmissible diseases that cause gradual and irreversible degeneration of health and, toward the end, enormous suffering and health system utilization. A lifestyle associated also with other unpleasant but incurable communicable virus infections. In general, people sick with transmissible diseases are encouraged to stay home, and having an incurable transmissible disease would seem like the kind of thing you would not want in the workplace. But that would be discrimination and illegal.

No, the lifestyle choice in question is smoking.

No doubt that smoking is associated with health problems -- in the smoker.  We are not talking about second hand smoke issues, we are talking about people who smoke outdoors or at home or in their cars, but not at work. No one has ever caught cancer from a cancer sufferer or heart disease from a heart disease suffer.  (People have caught AIDS from people who have it, though.  In fact, that's the only way to get it.) Smokers, as smokers, pose no threat to their coworkers.

So ultimately, this is about money. Employers do not want to pay for employee health benefits for smokers. The whole "healthier workplace" thing is just a, well, smokescreen. It's about the money, and being able to discriminate against people who engage in a particular lifestyle choice to save money.

The article quotes people worried that other lifestyle choices might soon be targeted, but one gets the impression that the NYT presents them as Chicken Littles worried that the sky is falling.

But should obesity not be next? Obesity is probably far worse of a national, nay, global health issue, being associated with chronic and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and a whole host of related circulatory and organ diseases. And, as many as half of the people in this country are overweight.  Not nearly as many people smoke. Only skinny people should be able to get and keep jobs.  No gaining weight after you get hired.

After obesity is sedentary lifestyle -- people who watch too much TV and internet and who do not exercise regularly. Exercise is the opposite of smoking and obesity -- where smoking and obesity cause health problems, exercise causes a corresponding health benefit.  Sedentary lifestyles lack those benefits.

Then there are potentially dangerous hobbies and sports, like motorcycle riding, skiing, roller blading, mountain biking...

Soon, only the very fit and very boring, and those with incurable transmissible diseases like AIDS, will be able to get jobs. (Wasn't it the book 1984 in which everyone was made to do exercises every morning?)

And lest anyone get on me about the AIDS thing, let me say this: If it is reasonable that people with AIDS not be discriminated against, a position I actually favor, then all the more should smokers not be discriminated against.

About the discrimination against smokers, the article ends with four words: "It's a good idea." Quitting is a good idea.  Encouraging employees to quit is a good idea.  Similar things could be said about obesity and being sedentary.  Caution is warranted with risky pastimes.  These are good idease. Discriminating against smokers is just plain discrimination.

But the Times thinks it's a good idea.

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