The state Bureau of Health Promotion wants the governor to veto a bill that prohibits employers from discriminating against smokers, drinkers or overeaters if their habits do not interfere with their job performance.
Opponents of the bill, passed recently by the Utah Legislature, say the legislation discourages healthy practices and will eventually mean higher health insurance premiums for employers who hire, for instance, only non-smokers."A business should be able to maintain their health care costs," said bureau director Gary Edwards. Health officials estimate that smokers cost employers an average of $5,000 more in health benefits than non-smoking colleagues.
Said Ken Martin, president of Martin Door Manufacturing Inc., a company that hires only non-smokers: "From an employers standpoint, if we allow smokers to work for us, health insurance costs go up for all of our healthy people."
Opponents say the bill was drafted and backed by the tobacco industry out of concerns that some people who use tobacco products are treated like second-class citizens.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Craig Peterson, R-Orem, said the Tobacco Institute brought the bill to his attention. "I took the issue on because I saw it was much broader than that. If it was a `tobacco' bill I wouldn't have carried it," he said.
In fact, the word tobacco appears nowhere in the language of the bill. "It's lawful products and that includes food," said Peterson.
Bud Scruggs, the governor's chief of staff, said the Legislature had not yet delivered to the governor all of the bills it passed during the session, which ended Feb. 27.
"We're going to listen to the bill and we're going to talk to our health people," Scruggs said.
Scruggs said there seems to be a lack of evidence that employers fire, demote or refuse to hire or promote people who smoke or drink. "There just doesn't seem to be any outcry. This bill is a solution in search of a problem," Scrugg said.
Peterson, who describes himself as a conservative, said the bill is intended to protect smokers, drinkers and overeaters as long as the habits do not "inhibit their ability to perform their jobs well."
The legislation was intended to protect individual citizens from "Big Brotherism," Peterson said. "I think we need to be a little bit careful as we reflect on other people's habits or lifestyles."