Penrose-St. Francis Health Services plans to stop hiring tobacco users beginning Jan. 1 — a move meant to make its hospitals healthier despite concerns it could discriminate against smokers.
The new policy by Centura Health, the local system’s parent, comes amid other changes at Penrose-St. Francis aimed at improving employees’ health, said Margaret Sabin, Penrose-St. Francis’ president and chief executive. For example, the system plans to ban soda sales starting in 2015.
She framed each initiative as a chance to be role models for the community — while possibly saving lives by compelling people to stop smoking.
“We are walking our talk, in that our mission is to improve the health of the community we serve,” Sabin said.
Similar tobacco-user hiring bans across the nation have garnered criticism for possibly preventing the best doctors from serving patients, while punishing people for a legal, highly addictive activity that is difficult to quit.
Such policies first sprung up in the 1980s, but their popularity began surging about four years ago among hospitals and health care providers, often as a means to cut health care costs, said Michael Siegel, a professor with the Boston University School of Public Health who studies tobacco use.
He said the ban could create a slippery slope to restricting hiring for other behaviors. At what point, opponents say, will employers limit hiring based on obesity or motorcycle use?
Workers rights advocates also have cast doubt on the policy’s effectiveness in curbing smoking.
“Hospitals are trying to buff their image in the community, at the expense of their own patients’ health,” said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.
Current employees, or people hired though Dec. 31, are not subject to the tobacco ban. It would not affect people seeking promotions, nor contractors working for Penrose-St. Francis, Sabin said.
People applying after that date, however, must first get tested for cotinine, a substance found in tobacco products, which results from the body breaking down nicotine. Anyone testing positive must wait 90 days before reapplying, the company said.
The chemical also exists in nicotine patches often used by people trying to quit smoking, and people wearing the patch cannot be hired, Sabin said. She noted hospital officials would have no way of knowing if a positive test came from a patch or any other tobacco products, Sabin said.
If employees hired after Jan. 1 are caught smoking, they could be fired because being tobacco-free was a condition of their hiring, Sabin said.
“Certainly we would engage in everything we could to encourage that associate toward a healthier lifestyle,” she said.
A hospital spokesman was uncertain Thursday whether the use of electronic cigarettes also was prohibited.
Sabin said Penrose-St. Francis has no plans for limiting hiring for other lifestyle choices.
“The data for smoking is so overwhelming,” Sabin said. “It kills people, and therefore as a health care organization, we probably shouldn’t promote it.”
The policy evoked mixed reactions from smokers working on the campus, both for Centura Health and for unaffected health care providers leasing space there. Several believe it discriminated against smokers, even those who have tried repeatedly to quit.
Some people said smokers simply wouldn’t apply to work for Centura Health.
Thomas Chmielewski, a lab technician at Rocky Mountain Cancer Center at the Penrose Hospital campus, said he would try to kick the habit.
“If I needed the job, I would probably quit,” Chmielewski said.
Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654