McCULLOUGH: Hospital's anti-smoking goal is noble, but oversteps its bounds

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

This week Gwinnett Medical Center implemented a new hiring policy that prohibits employees from smoking, not just at work, but anywhere, ever.

I’m usually against any public entity trying to legislate behavior of any kind unless that behavior causes harm to others. In this case, the hospital sort of has a point, but I’m not sure its case is so strong as to let it start dictating behavior.

The hospital is in the health business. Promoting good health by example, on its face, should be an admirable policy.

“This is a matter of practicing what you preach,” the hospital’s vice president of human resources, Steve Nadeau, told the Daily Post.

I understand that. Health care professionals’ messages are more likely to be heard when delivered by healthy people. I don’t like having my temperature taken by nurses who are obviously not quite over the flu. I don’t want to be preached to about my weight from a guy who shops at the same big-and-tall store I do. And when someone listens to my heart, the last thing I want to smell on them is smoke.

Cigarette smoke also does not meet my do-no-harm-to-others requirement. The dangers of second-hand smoke are well-documented.

Then there is the right of the hospital to hire the right person for the job. Coughing, hacking lung-cancer-patients-to-be may not be the best people to work in a place that offers respiratory therapy. And I’m not sure what the guidelines for such prohibitions are, but I assume there is at least some legal grounds. Workplaces can demand that employees not use drugs, after all.

And now we get to the “but.”

But — drugs are illegal anyway. Smoking is not. Smoking is unpopular. It’s unhealthy. It may be irresponsible. But it’s not illegal, and neither is drinking, having unprotected sex, eating lard right out of the bucket or any number of unhealthy or dangerous activities.

And that’s why I’m not on the hospital’s side on this one. Its goal may be noble, but where does the crusade end?

I don’t know to what extent this might go, but the next logical step would be obesity, of course. Will the hospital join clothing stores in making sure every employee is height-weight proportionate? Will employees’ diets be monitored? What about exercise? After all, how can you treat someone’s clogged arteries when your own are filled with grease and cheese?

The answer is you still can. It might not be the best situation, it may not look good, but a doctor carrying an extra 30 pounds still has a brain and a medical degree and can still dispense advice and prescribe treatments and medications.

And so can one who smokes. The difference is that so many people are overweight nowadays that the social stigma of obesity has faded somewhat, while so few people smoke and its stigma is such that it’s easy to attack the ones who still do.

I admire the hospital for trying to lead by example and trying to promote healthy living. Banning smoking on its property is smart and logical. But infringing on its employees’ rights to engage in legal activities is stepping beyond its bounds.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.