According to the Times, the American Legacy Foundation, a leading anti-smoking group, says job discrimination against smokers is unfair because "refusing to hire smokers who are otherwise qualified essentially punishes an addiction that is far more likely to afflict a janitor than a surgeon."
Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, argues that "there is nothing unique about smoking. The number of things that we all do privately that have negative impact on our health is endless. If it's not smoking, it's beer. If it's not beer, it's cheeseburgers. And what about your sex life?"
But just as people should be free to set the rules for smoking on their own property, they should be free to hire employees based on whatever criteria make sense to them.
Employers may have sound financial reasons for declining to hire smokers. Although smokers seem to have lower lifetime medical expenses than nonsmokers do (because they tend to die younger), they may be more costly to insure during their working years and more likely to take sick days.
In addition, medical businesses such as hospitals may see modeling healthy behavior as part of their missions.
Whatever their reasons, freedom of contract means people should not be forced to hire smokers, any more than they should be forced to hire nonsmokers. Yet most states, in response to lobbying by cigarette manufacturers, have made it illegal to require abstinence from tobacco as a condition of employment.
The real threat to our privacy and autonomy does not come from nosy employers. It comes from an increasingly intrusive government that considers promoting "public health" one of its core functions and interprets that concept broadly enough to encompass everything people do that might increase their own risk of disease or injury. That paternalistic tendency is reinforced by the government's ever-expanding role in health care, which gives every taxpayer a financial stake in his neighbor's lifestyle.
There's a fundamental difference between a private employer's hiring policies and a government's campaign to make us all as healthy as we can be.
While a smoker or fat guy turned away by one employer can always look for work elsewhere, citizens subject to the state's paternalism cannot easily pick a different government. Nor can they opt out of their government's requirements, restrictions, taxes and bans without risking punishment for failing to fasten their seat belts, for smoking in unapproved areas, for buying untaxed tobacco or alcohol or for using illegal drugs.
The American Legacy Foundation, for example, is perfectly happy to "punish an addiction" through regressive taxes and legal restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for these addicts to get their fix -- even when, as with bans on outdoor smoking and separately ventilated smoking rooms, there is no plausible bystander protection rationale.
There is a kind of consistency in these seemingly contradictory positions: a consistent urge to meddle in matters that are none of the government's business.
Jacob Sullum (firstname.lastname@example.org), a senior editor at Reason magazine, is the author of "For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health" (Free Press).