"Smokers' Rights": The Tobacco Companies' Latest Gasp For Survival


Nicotine addiction is by far this country's most prevalent (45-50million addicts), deadliest (450,000-500,000 lives/yr) and costliest ($65-$100 billion/yr) type of drug abuse. In fact, tobacco kills 75 times more Americans than all prohibited substances combined. Yet, many legislators who claim to be anti-drug accept money from tobacco pushers and enact laws that condone and encourage nicotine addiction. This institutionalized hypocrisy and corruption to promote drug abuse can be overcome, but only by bold action from concerned citizens.

Just as the terms filtered, light, slim and smokeless were chosen to deceitfully mass-market poison, the nicotine kingpins created and have been aggressively fueling an outrageous ideology called "smokers' rights". Their goal is to make nicotine use the only addictive behavior in America that is a civil right. If successful, the nation's deadliest killer would be granted the same legal protections accorded race, color, religious creed, sex, ancestry and disability. Attaining this legal status would effectively stop organizations from reducing health, safety and legal and financial risks caused by nicotine addiction and would be a monumental public health disaster.

In just two years the nicotine industry has successfully lobbied twenty-one state legislatures to enact "smokers' rights laws" (see Table 1). By getting the laws enacted, nicotine pushers profit by immunizing nicotine addicts from being held accountable for their destructive behavior. By banning various workplace drug policies, this forces employers and others to unfairly pay the skyrocketing costs caused by this drug abuse.

To gain the political acceptance needed to enact these bills, the tobacco giants created lobbying fronts called "smokers' rights groups", which deceptively appeared as grass-roots organizations. To recruit and indoctrinate smokers, Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building computer files on most smokers in America and mailing them free publications like Philip Morris Magazine, Smokers Advocate and Choice. This propaganda repeats exaggerated and false, but highly emotional charges like "Smokers are harassed and discriminated against by anti-smokers." Yes, those who help save the lives of smokers have been labeled anti-smoker by the drug pushers who addict and kill smokers.

In advancing their so-called smokers' rights bills, anti-health propagandists repeat the lie, now believed by many, that smoking is an "adult choice." On the contrary, before reaching adulthood, the vast majority of smokers are heavily addicted to nicotine, a deadly drug with addictive properties similar to those of cocaine and heroin. About 85 percent of adult smokers say they want to quit. The adult choice rhetoric demonstrates absolute contempt for science and truth.

These efforts, combined with society's former tolerance of smoking, have brainwashed many into thinking that smoking has always been a protected legal right, recently infringed upon by anti-smokers. This raises two key questions. What are the legal rights of smokers, and who truly advocates these rights? Firstly, everybody had the same rights until these laws began to grant special privileges to nicotine addicts, thus discriminating against the nicotine-free majority. Secondly, although nicotine companies claim to advocate the rights of smokers, they actually and knowingly deceive and harm them.

In fact, nicotine pushers aggressively attempt to deny addicts fundamental rights, including: 1) having access to courts for lawsuits to recover compensatory and punitive damages for harm caused by products and denials by manufacturers, and 2) learning the truth about deadly components in tobacco smoke and toxic additives in cigarettes.

A recent example of this repression is the industry's failed lobbying campaign over the past few years in Pennsylvania to enact product liability laws, which would deny access to Pennsylvania courts for the purpose of filing lawsuits against tobacco companies. A coalition of pro-health advocates, victims' rights groups, environmentalists, unions and trial lawyers lobbied to defeat the legislation. By not opposing this anti-smoker legislation, smokers' rights groups showed their true colors.

To understand why the nicotine industry has invested so much to enact smokers' rights laws, some background information is necessary. Employers want employees to maintain optimal health status to increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and disability and help contain rising healthcare insurance rates. Small employers now find that high workforce health risks or healthcare claims even result in nonrenewal of insurance. Thus, wise employers have developed policies and programs to reduce risk factors for diseases and accidents by promoting employee health and safety.

Most health promotion and risk management experts agree that the most cost effective these policies and programs are those which reduce harmful drug abuse, especially nicotine addiction and alcoholism. Studies have found that employees addicted to nicotine incur 50 percent higher healthcare costs, 100 percent higher worker's compensation costs and 45 percent higher absentee rates compared to nicotine-free employees. One study estimated that an average male smoker incurs $60,000 more in healthcare costs during his working career than an average male nonsmoker. Several federal government studies estimated that the costs of lost workforce productivity caused by smoking are twice as high as the corresponding healthcare costs.

During the past few years, responsible employers have adopted "smoke-free workplace policies" to protect all employees from poisonous tobacco smoke pollution. When employers implement these policies, employees who smoke have the option to recover from their addiction, often with the help of nicotine recovery programs provided or paid for by the employer.

Employees who choose to continue to smoke during non-working hours still bring their drug addiction to work with them every day, as withdrawal. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, physical discomfort, decreased mental concentration and increased anxiety. The impact of withdrawal depends upon the severity of symptoms, individual coping skills and the work environment. As with other addictive drugs, withdrawal symptoms of nicotine adversely affect work performance and may threaten the safety of the addicted employee's co-workers, and the public.

A recent study found that about five percent of employers have adopted "nicotine-free hiring policies", meaning that successful job applicants agree to become or remain nicotine-free as a condition of employment. But presently addicted employees are not required to seek treatment. This is well within the legal limits of employers who are free to negotiate and contract with job applicants and employees about conditions of employment. Many employers require job applicants to pass a physical exam, reside in a certain location, have a college degree, driver's license or attractive appearance as a condition of employment. These policies and hundreds of others affect off-the-job activities of employees, and should also be outlawed according to the logic of the nicotine industry.

Asbestos companies implemented this type of hiring policy because employee smoking was the major risk factor among the synergistic causes for respiratory diseases. The courts, however, held the asbestos industry solely liable for these diseases in product liability suits. Such court decisions have virtually bankrupted the asbestos industry, even 'though employee nicotine addiction was a major cause of disease.

Many fire and police departments have also adopted nicotine-free hiring policies because smoking reduces physical endurance necessary for strenuous and dangerous work duties. In such cases, nicotine-free hiring policies can save not only the lives of those who quit smoking, but also the lives of co-workers and the public. Nicotine-free hiring policies have withstood legal challenges, a key reason why nicotine pushers want them outlawed.

In each state where smokers' rights laws have been enacted, the nicotine lobby deceitfully claims that many employers are firing smokers merely for smoking off-the-job. But even in the few cases that have been very widely publicized by the industry, those employees were fired, for violating their previously agreed upon nicotine-free hiring contract. In fact, this author is unaware of even one employer in America that requires current employees to seek, let alone complete, nicotine recovery.

This pervasive tolerance toward employee nicotine addiction, however, doesn't exist towards other types of drug use. In sharp contrast, many employer drug policies mandate urine and blood tests (often random and witnessed). Those who test positive, not necessarily addicts, for certain substances are then required to successfully complete sometimes dubious treatment programs, be fired and/or face criminal prosecution. And unlike nicotine-free hiring policies, other drug policies rarely exempt previously hired employees with a grandfather clause.

It is crucial to recognize that employers don't establish drug policies for law enforcement purposes, but to save money or to comply with a government mandate. But if off-the-job employee use of marijuana, which isn't deadly, is considered an unacceptable risk by employers, it is inconsistent to tolerate nicotine addiction in employees. In fact, policies requiring all employees to be nicotine-free would save more money for employers and save more lives of employees and others than policies for any other drug.

Although employer drug policies were the initial target of smokers' rights legislation, others include: life/fire/health insurance risk rating for smokers, fire and burn prevention policies, clean indoor air policies and laws, court orders protecting people from tobacco smoke and cigarette excise taxes. In fact, if these types of policies hadn't reduced nicotine addiction rates and sales of cigarettes in the past, nicotine pusher never have created the smokers' rights campaign. Once smokers' rights laws are on the books, they can serve as grounds for litigation against employers, insurers, landlords, proprietors and governments for responsibly trying to save lives and money, by reducing and rating risks.

Legislating the right to smoke as a civil right insults America's revered civil rights which were attained only after courageous and usually bloody struggles against historic social injustice, marked by discrimination and hatred based upon immutable factors. When basic needs such as employment, housing, healthcare and even food aren't legally recognized rights, granting this protection to a drug addiction and number one killer is scandalous.

Compared to all other drug laws, smokers' rights laws run totally counter to our nation's campaign to reduce substance abuse. These laws are synonymous to passing laws that require employers to hire addicts of heroin or cocaine who refuse to seek treatment, suffer through withdrawal symptoms daily, call in sick repeatedly, and cost employers billions of dollars.

Readers are implored to join nonsmokers' rights groups, Cancer Societies, Heart and Lung Associations, employers and insurance groups in urging state legislators to reject smokers' rights bills which are designed to protect profits of nicotine pushers.

American Council on Science and Health, Inc.


By William T. Godshall

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