U-Haul won’t hire smokers in Mass., 20 other states

Is it sensible health policy or lifestyle discrimination?

POLICE AND FIRE DEPARTMENTS across Massachusetts stopped hiring smokers in 1997 as part of a pension system overhaul. In 2011, the Massachusetts Hospital Association implemented the same policy for its workforce.

“We’re basically saying this is not an environment that we want in the future, so we’re not going to add individuals who use tobacco to our workforce,” said Lynn Nicholas, who was the president and CEO of the association at the time.

Many viewed the move by Nicholas skeptically. One business leader said he found the hospital association’s new policy a little scary. “A lot of employers would question whether this is a slippery slope. Will the next set of screens be about whether they drive or what their diet is? Other lifestyle choices? And where does that end?” the business leader asked.

A legal analysis by the law firm Prince Lobel in 2011 noted that the American Civil Liberties Union viewed bans on hiring smokers as “lifestyle discrimination” and an “attack on the privacy rights of employees.”

The legal analysis found that Massachusetts did not have a law barring employers from taking such action. The law firm estimated 30 states did have some sort of statutory protection for the off-duty conduct of employees, ranging from specific protections for smoking to more general laws barring employers from limiting employee use of lawful products during non-work time.

All of this background is prelude to the announcement by U-Haul International that starting February 1 the company will no longer hire “nicotine users” in the 21 states where it is legal to take such action. The company, seeking to build a healthier workforce, said in states where testing is allowed applicants would have to consent to nicotine screening in order to be considered.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Shannon Palus, writing at Slate, called U-Haul’s decision draconian. “The policy puts an awful lot of blame and responsibility on individuals not just for actively smoking (even on the weekends!) but also for having smoked at some point in the past and for now using nicotine-delivery methods as part of a plan to quit the stuff altogether,” she said.

In addition to its headquarters state of Arizona, U-Haul said it will be implementing the policy in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.