Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 26, 2013

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

Tobacco-free employment standards sought


Kokomo Tribune

---- — 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.

Chamber President Kevin Brinegar called the smoker’s bill of rights “an intrusion into the rights of employers in making hiring decisions.”

“Holding smoking up to the same standards as we hold discrimination based upon race, gender, religion and ethnicity seems arbitrary and without justification,” Brinegar said.

That’s how the federal government sees it: It allows nicotine-free hiring practices because smokers aren’t recognized as a protected class under federal law.

It’s too early to predict the fate of a bill that would roll back smoker’s “rights.” The chamber backed the 2012 statewide smoking ban and lobbied hard for a more comprehensive law than what was passed.

The Republican chairman of the House Public Health Committee, Rep. Ed Clere of New Albany, hasn’t seen any proposed legislation yet. But as the gatekeeper to such legislation, he’s open to the idea.

“I appreciated the chamber’s stance on the statewide smoking ban, and I’m glad they’re talking about the need to continue to focus on reducing smoking in Indiana,” Clere said. “Indiana is one of least healthy states in the nation, and smoking is a big part of that.”

This is the second year in a row the chamber has targeted the smokers’ protection law as a top legislative priority. One thing the chamber knows: It can take a while for such legislation to percolate in the Statehouse. The statewide smoking ban bill was introduced six times in the Indiana General Assembly before it finally passed last year.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.