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Manatee school district considers employee smoking ban

BRADENTON — The Manatee County School District is considering a ban on hiring people who smoke.

The move is to reduce employer health care costs and employee absences and to provide a healthier work environment, school leaders say.

New hires will be asked to submit to a medical screening that detects nicotine and sign an affidavit affirming they do not use the drug, said Forrest Branscomb, the school district’s risk manager, who drafted the proposed policy which he said is slated to go before the school board later this month.

“We would only hire people who are nicotine free,” Branscomb said.

The proposed policy comes on the heels of district officials announcing they will likely have to hire more than 100 new teachers during the upcoming school year.

New employees, Branscomb said, would be banned from using cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco.

Existing employees would not be affected, but would be encouraged to take advantage of programs to help them quit.

Currently the district has a smoking cessation program in which it reimburses employees 80 percent of the cost of prescription drugs that help people quit. Employees also get discounts on nicotine patches.

Branscomb said he modeled the proposed policy after Sarasota County government officials stopped hiring smokers in 2008.

Potential new employees there are given a urine test prior to employment, said Steve Marcinko, Sarasota County’s manager of employee health benefits.

“We’ve only had a few who’ve gone through the pre-employment physical and tested positive,” Marcinko said. “And it’s completely legal, we haven’t had any issues.”

Under civil rights laws, employers are prohibited from discriminating against people based on race, sex, religion and national origin, among other categories.

“However, there is no law to protects smokers, and I doubt there ever will be,” said Manatee School Board attorney John Bowen.

Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal said not hiring smokers will help limit the annual growth in health care costs, the most expensive perk offered to school employees.

“We want to hire people who are healthy and want them to stay healthy throughout their career,” McGonegal said.

Branscomb said district officials are considering the move to also reduce employee absences and to avoid other employees from being exposed to second-hand smoke. Even short exposures to second-hand smoke can cause health problems, including cancer or a reduced heart rate variability, potentially increasing the risk of a heart attack, health experts say.

Nationwide, an estimated 46 million people, or 20 percent of adults, smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The habit is the leading cause of preventable death, accounting for approximately 443,000 deaths, or one of every five deaths in the United States each year.

Smoking is costly to employers both in terms of smoking-related medical expenses and lost productivity, district officials said.

The CDC estimates each employee that smokes costs employers $1,760 in lost productivity and $1,623 in excess medical expenses each year.

Approximately 30 percent of indoor workers in the nation are not covered by smoke-free workplace policies, according to the most recent U.S. Surgeon General’s report.

After the proposed policy is presented to the school board, board members will review it for 30 days, hold a public hearing during a separate board meeting and then vote on whether to approve it.