Hospital group nixes hiring of applicants who use tobacco

LYNN – The Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA) is taking their “no-smoking” policy to a new level with an initiative stating that they will no longer hire individuals who use tobacco products as of Jan. 1.

Lynn Nicholas, president and CEO of the MHA, said the initiative does not affect current employees.

“I am not pressuring my employees to quit smoking, although I’m sure they feel that way indirectly,” says Nicholas. “The goal of our organization is to heal people. I care about my workforce very much and I want them to be healthy.”

She hopes the initiative can lead the way in reducing unnecessary deaths.

“Eight thousand people in Massachusetts die each year from tobacco use,” says Nicholas. “I think people forget about the statistics. If this can save lives and reduce the number of patients in our hospitals who are there directly or indirectly because of tobacco, that would be significant.”

Nicholas adds that the initiative could contribute to the pressure on reducing health-care costs. Tobacco-related disease and deaths cost the state six billion dollars a year. “There’s enormous pressure on reducing the cost of healthcare. I thought in my own way as a small employer, we could put more emphasis on preventable disease and even more emphasis on extending life and reducing the cost of healthcare,” she said.

This proposal will act as a model for hospitals and health care facilities that are members of the MHA, but does not require them to comply.

Hallmark Health and North Shore Medical Center (NSMC) facilities are members of the association and are already tobacco-free workplaces, meaning employees, patients and visitors are prohibited from smoking on-site.

With an approximate workforce of 3,000 employees, Director of Hallmark Health Richard Pozniak says the initiative will be difficult for large health-care facilities to implement.

“The MHA has a much smaller employee workforce than a facility such as Hallmark Health, which makes it easier for them to implement the initiative,” says Pozniak.

Hallmark Health facilities include Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Hallmark Health Medical Center in Reading, Hallmark Health Cancer Center in Stoneham, CHEM Center for Radiation Oncology in Stoneham, CHEM Center for MRI in Stoneham, Hallmark Health VNA and Hospice in Malden and Hallmark Health Medical Associates.

Pozniak says all of the facilities have been tobacco-free workplaces for the past two years.

“As a community based health-care system, we believe it’s important to take a stand against what we know is the leading cause of preventable death and disease, which is smoking,” he said.

He noted that future job applicants who smoke will still be considered for a position.

“If there’s a qualified person applying and that person smokes, we are not requesting that they give up smoking, but that they do not smoke on Hallmark Health property,” says Pozniak. “If they so choose to give up smoking to improve their health and well-being,, we will help them through the process.”

Hallmark Health offers nicotine replacement products and a smoking cessation program for employees who smoke.

“If you use tobacco, we recognize that our tobacco-free policy is a challenge. We ask our employees to speak with their physician about ways to manage the challenge of smoking and to seek our resources,” Pozniak says.

North Shore Medical Center (NSMC) facilities, including Union Hospital in Lynn and Salem Hospital, have no plans to put the initiative into place.

“As a health-care facility, our goal is to keep patients and employees healthy, but at this point I don’t think there’s any chatter or plans to do something that drastic,” says NSMC Director of Media Relations Kevin Ronningen.

“This (initiative) sets a precedent, but I’m not sure how it will shape up,” he says.

Students at North Shore Community College (NSCC) had mixed opinions about the new initiative.

“I think it’s a bit hypocritical,” says student Alex King. “It’s almost saying that people who smoke aren’t capable of caring for other people and I don’t think that’s the case.”

Kenneth Vielleux agrees. “I don’t think people should be refused a job because they smoke,” he says.

Vielleux’s friend, Ryan Soares De Sousa, said the initiative is “a little cruel,” but thinks that it’s a good thing. “I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he says.

Student John Jones works at BayRidge Hospital in Lynn, which recently became a tobacco-free workplace.

Jones thinks the initiative is “a little drastic.”

“I don’t think the fact that you smoke should have any effect on getting a job, especially during these tough economic times,” he says. “People are having enough trouble finding jobs and something like this is just going to make matters worse.”

Students Jessica Bashore and Elvis Matos agree.

“It’s discrimination,” says Bashore. “People who smoke can be just as qualified for jobs in healthcare as people who don’t.”

Matos says people who decide to smoke are making a personal choice to affect their own health and shouldn’t be “punished” because of it.

“Smokers are people too. Just because they smoke doesn’t mean they can’t help people.”