Op-ed: Why do we tolerate smoking in Northern Kentucky's workplaces?

Posted at 9:00 AM, Feb 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-17 09:02:25-05

Brent Cooper is president and owner of C-Forward, a Covington-based IT service firm. He also serves on the board of the Kentucky State Chamber and the Northern Kentucky Convention Center. He lives in Fort Thomas.

It’s no surprise that the American Lung Association gave Kentucky straight Fs in its 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 secondhand 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.

Brent Cooper

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 Kentucky cities like Morehead and London are also now smoke free.

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

Finally, and perhaps the biggest reason, 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 to 90 percent in favor. It is true that there is a minority of folks who 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 laws is worker safety.

There are some jobs that come with inherent health risks: mining, police work, etc. However, secondhand 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, according to an 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.