My Job or My Cigs? Future UA employees may have to choose

Rebecca Lawhorne/Sun Star Reporter
April 10, 2012

People in Alaska might want to bump “quit smoking” up to the top of their to-do list before it costs them more than just their health. Being a regular tobacco user may cost them a chance at a job.

UA President Patrick Gamble and Human Resources Interim Chief Donald Smith sat down with the UA system’s Staff Alliance during the group’s retreat on March 23 to discuss the potential implementation of a single policy within UA that will save the university $21 million in health care costs over the course of 15 years. The magic policy? The university would enact a hiring ban on all tobacco users, which would go into effect after July 1o. The suggested policy comes on the heels of an expected employee health care premium increase.

Don’t put on that patch just yet, current UA employees. UA Director of Public Affairs Kate Ripley says the plan, if ultimately adopted, would only affect new UA hires, not those already employed by the university, whether a student or non-student. “Over time, as the current tobacco-using workforce ages out, we would shift to a workforce that doesn’t use tobacco and doesn’t therefore incur the costs to the health plan,” Ripley said.

UA isn’t just feeling inspired after that latest “TRUTH” commercial. The plan, which was first introduced March 15 and is still in its early stages, is due to “skyrocketing health-care costs,” according to Ripley. Employee health care rates are also expected to increase, according to a recent questions-and-answers document made available to UA employees. The memo discusses a “trend of health care inflation.” There were two alternatives to reduce costs, according to the memo: reduce the scope of benefits, or increase employee deductibles. President Gamble acknowledges that if the tobacco hiring ban isn’t deemed a good fit for the university, other approaches will be considered, like eliminating certain optional health care choices. At the Staff Alliance meeting, Gamble asked employees to be patient as the process, “which is still quite fluid, moves ahead.”

Several factors within the university contributed to a $3.5 million shortfall in the employees’ share of the expenses. Some employees opted for a High Deductible Health Care Plan (HDHP) or waived coverage entirely, and rejected an unpopular “tobacco surcharge” last year. Employees pay 17 percent of health care costs while UA pays the other 83 percent. The shortfall means that employees were not able to meet their 17 percent obligation. Next year annual health care costs are estimated at $65 million for the university, $4,000 for employees.

Besides the cost benefits, many people question the other ways that the smokers ban will affect the university. UA employees showed concern on how the ban will negatively affect UA as a research institution which recruits people from European and Asian countries, where smoking rates are much higher than the U.S., according the University of Alaska website The Statewide Voice.  Another concern is the few people who work in the smaller community campuses and who may use tobacco, but are also irreplaceable.

UA wouldn’t be the first to a enact tobacco-free hiring policy. Alaska Airlines as well as dozens of hospitals across the country have been enacting similar policies for the past two decades. Many of them test employees’ saliva for Nicotine and some ban Nicotine patches. If the hiring ban is adopted at UA, it will show up as a question on job applications. 

Groups like the National Workrights Institute voiced concerns that if this tobacco- hiring ban policies across the nation are successful in driving down health care costs, it may lead to a “crack down” on other behavior, such as eating fast food, or drinking alcohol, according to a February 2011 New York Times article about the issue. Eventually, risky hobbies like motorcycle ownership could become targets, according to the article.

Tobacco ranks as the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, yet one in five Americans smoke. In 2007, tobacco use cost Alaskans more than $314 million in direct medical expenditures and an additional $177 million in lost productivity due to tobacco-related deaths, according to the Alaska Division of Public Health. Tobacco use has been on the downslope in Alaska, as well as in the Lower 48, according to state statistics.

Unlike Alaska, many states, like California and Missouri, have laws which make it impossible for companies to discriminate against “lawful off-duty conduct,” according to Paul Ostroff,  who is a Labor and Employment attorney with Anchorage-based Lane Powell. 

UA will be the first university to have a tobacco hiring ban. President Gamble is quoted on The Statewide Voice as saying “What can make a large impact on slowing future growth in plan costs is a healthier pool of employees and dependents on the plan.”

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