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November 26, 2013

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Indiana Chamber targets 'smoker's bill of rights'

Tobacco-free employment standards sought

When Indi-ana law-makers return for the 2014 session in early January, they’ll step into the highly charged issue of marriage equality, as they debate the proposed amendment that would lock a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions into the state constitution.

But it may not be the only heated debate over government intrusion into people’s private lives.

One of the legislative priorities of the influential Indiana Chamber of Commerce is the repeal of the state’s so-called “smoker’s bill of rights.”

In 1991, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that forbids employers from turning away a job applicant just because he or she smokes.

The state smoking ban, passed in 2012, outlaws smoking in most workplaces. But that 1991 smoker’s bill of rights forbids employers from telling their workers they can’t smoke when they’re off duty and away from the workplace. And it bans most employers from making smokers pay higher out-of-pocket costs for their health insurance.

In essence, the law says it’s none of your boss’ business if you’re using a legal product on your own time.

Indiana wasn’t alone in passing such legislation. After several companies, including Turner Broadcasting and Alaska Airlines, stopped hiring smokers in the mid-1980s, at least 29 states passed laws protecting smokers from what they saw as workplace discrimination.

The Indiana Chamber is the state’s leading pro-business advocate, and most of its legislative efforts are focused on less, not more, government regulation.

But chamber leaders also argue Indiana’s tobacco addiction — our smoking rate is fifth highest in the nation — is driving up health care costs for businesses and creating an unhealthy climate for economic prosperity.

A 2012 study by Ball State University’s Global Health Institute found Indiana’s smoking habit is costing the state’s employers nearly $2.6 billion in productivity losses and $2.2 billion in health care costs each year.

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