COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A bill that would let South Carolina employers hire and fire based on someone’s off-the-job smoking habits appears to be going up in smoke.
A Senate subcommittee voted 2-1 Wednesday to shelve the legislation. But hospital executives said they’ll push for another hearing.
The bill would repeal a state law barring employers from making personnel decisions based on whether someone uses tobacco outside of work. That includes hiring, firing, promoting or demoting workers.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, a sponsor, argued the government has no business telling employers how to spend their money. The tea party Republican said the individual liberty of the business owner is the issue.
“Government does not need to decide your business practices,” said Bryant, R-Anderson.
But Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Inman, said the idea that someone can be fired for smoking on their back porch, because a co-worker told on them, is akin to Gestapo tactics. And Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, said he has a problem with not hiring people solely because they smoke, which he noted is legal.
“I don’t think people should be punished because he or she chooses to smoke,” Williams said.
Groups advocating for the law included the state Hospital Association and state Chamber of Commerce.
Hospital Association president Thornton Kirby said it’s about a healthier population. He argued that the state’s 92 hospitals should be able to reject a job applicant who lights up because having smokers on the payroll increases the cost of their employees’ health care.
The ability to smoke is not a constitutionally protected right, he said, and it makes no sense to carve out this one exemption from businesses’ ability in South Carolina to otherwise hire and fire at will. For example, he said, people can cover themselves with tattoos, but they may not get a job.
“This is not about limiting individuals’ right to exercise their option to smoke,” Kirby said. “You have the right to pierce yourself and wear crazy hair styles and tattoos, and you have the right to smoke, but I don’t have to hire you.”
The difference, Reese said, is that smoking requires questioning.
“If someone comes in with tongue rings and piercings all over, I don’t have to ask,” he said. “It’s obvious.”
Columbia attorney and lobbyist Dwight Drake argued against the repeal, saying people have a right to privacy away from work, and that the practical consequences would be people losing their jobs or seeing pay cuts.
“You don’t need a statistical study to know who smokes in this world. You won’t have surgeons fired. They will be janitors, the working people will be fired,” said Drake, who represents tobacco company Philip Morris International. “They’ll wind up without health care, and you’re going to pay for it. The state’s going to pay for it because they’ll go on Medicaid.”
Michael Cunningham, a vice president of AnMed Health, said the hospital has no plans to fire employees who smoke, because the re-training would be expensive, but wants to add smoking to its screening list for job applicants.