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Op-Ed: Say Yes to Smoke-Free, No to Protected Class

It’s no surprise that the American Lung Association gave Kentucky straight “F’s” in their recent report card. Our state is the worst in the nation for smokers and cancer deaths.  It has been that way for a long time.

Because we are the worst, businesses moving into our state are surprised to find we allow employees to be subjected to the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. The majority of states now have smoke free laws in place.

As it is now, Northern Kentucky is seen as the smoking section for Greater Cincinnati. I truly believe that image hurts all Kentucky businesses.

Kentucky will eventually have a reasonable statewide smoke free law in businesses for several reasons.

First, with the exception of Northern Kentucky, every major urban area in the state of Kentucky already has a smoke free law in place. Of course Lexington and Louisville are smoke free, but places like Morehead & London, Ky. are now smoke free.

Second, the previous arguments made by pro smoking groups that smoke free laws would kill bars and restaurants has been completely debunked.   

Finally, and perhaps the biggest reason I think it is inevitable, is that the majority of you want it.  Yes, even in Northern Kentucky, the majority of folks want smoke free environments and recognize we shouldn’t force employees to breathe toxic fumes.  

At Chambers of Commerce around the state, the issue of a smoke free law generally polls at 80%-90% in favor. It is true that there is a minority of folks that are willing to cancel their membership over the issue, (they feel that strongly about it), but it has gotten to the place that another minority will quit if smoke free policies aren’t adopted.

Many of those who disagree with smoke free laws feel it is a decision for the business owner. I respectfully disagree.  Worker safety shouldn’t be a choice.  Not when it is possible to make the workplace environment safe at a reasonable cost. Sure, we argue the economic benefits, but at the end of the day, the reason to support smoke free is worker safety.

There are some jobs that come with inherent health risks. Mining, police work, etc. But second hand smoke is a risk that can be completely prevented. Most of us believe employees in bars and restaurants shouldn’t have to needlessly suffer.

Regardless of how you feel about smoke free laws, it is baffling that the state of Kentucky also has a law defining “smokers as a protected class”.  

That’s right, in the state of Kentucky, we elevated the rights of smokers to that of race and religion.  

As a business owner in the state of Kentucky, it is illegal for me to ask someone if they smoke during the interview process.  

Knowing full well that a smoker costs an average of $6,000 per year more than a non-smoker (Ohio State Study).

I can consider whether or not someone has a visible tattoo. I can consider their choice of green hair or whether they are bald (where are the bald guy protections?). I can consider where they went to school, (I don’t hire Duke basketball fans). I can consider an answer to pretty much any question I ask. But it is illegal for me to consider whether or not they smoke? Really?

At my company, we hire the most talented people, so statistically we would continue to hire smokers whether this law was in place or not. And for the record, I don’t think smoking in and of itself should be a disqualifier.

But I do feel strongly that smokers should pay higher insurance costs for their choice.  This law prohibits that.  It’s true we can charge non-smokers less as a "reward", but most folks don’t know that, and it can be problematic.

Regardless, I think laws should reflect what we value.  Do we really want smoking elevated to the same level as race and religion? We’re one of the unhealthiest states in the country, largely due to the number of smokers we have, and we value that?

I hope you will vocally support a smoke free law for businesses.  

Even if you don’t support a smoke free law, I hope you will support the elimination of smokers as a protected class.  We shouldn’t have big tobacco HR policies.

About Brent Cooper

Brent Cooper is President & owner of C-Forward, one of the top I.T. service firms in Ohio and Kentucky.  A University of Kentucky graduate, Brent has over 24 years of experience in computer networking.  Brent serves on numerous boards including the Kentucky State Chamber Board, the Baptist Health Board, the NKU Foundation Board, the NKY Convention Center Board, and the Strive Partnership Board.  A graduate of both Leadership NKY & Leadership Cincinnati, Brent is also an active community columnist.  Brent lives in Fort Thomas with his wife Lisa and his daughters Sydney and Emma.