U-Haul will stop hiring smokers, to foster ‘a culture of wellness’ — and cut health-care costs

4 January 2020
Lateshia Beachum 

U-Haul is pumping the brakes on hiring nicotine users in 21 states beginning Feb. 1.

The moving-equipment and storage-unit rental company announced Monday that it will implement its nicotine-free policy in states that don’t have protections for smokers’ rights.

The Phoenix-based company is striving to have a healthier workforce and foster “a culture of wellness,” company chief of staff Jessica Lopez said in a news release.

Prospective job applicants in 21 states where companies are allowed to refrain from hiring nicotine-using individuals can expect to see the anti-nicotine policy on job applications and to be questioned about their nicotine use, according to the company. They can also be required to undergo nicotine screening to be deemed hirable in states where testing is allowed.

U-Haul, which employs more than 30,000 people across the United States and Canada, will grandfather in current workers who might be nicotine users. The company offers nicotine cessation assistance to employees.

“In our continued efforts to enhance our wellness program and decrease health care costs, we have become more aware of the medical side effects of using nicotine and tobacco products,” Lopez said in an email to the Arizona Republic.

The policy also covers e-cigarettes and vaping products, the news outlet reported.

Lopez said that decreasing health-care costs is a an added bonus to caring for workers’ health.

U-Haul declined an interview request from The Washington Post.

The company’s announcement comes on the heels of President Trump signing legislation that raised the minimum age to buy all tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 late last month. It also follows the country’s decline in cigarette smoking among adults, while lawmakers still wrestle with how to make smoking options less appealing to youths.

Public health experts encourage a nicotine-free lifestyle, but they split on the details of the new policy and differ on whether people — or the company — will benefit in the end.

About 49 million American adults used tobacco products in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette smokers were the largest group, followed by those smoking small filtered cigars and e-cigarettes.

Knowing how challenging it can be for nicotine-addicted individuals to quit smoking makes U-Haul’s new policy a misguided approach to health promotion, said Michael Siegel, professor of community health services at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Siegel noted that many former smokers or other users of tobacco products often use nicotine-infused gum, patches or lozenges to ween themselves off tobacco use.

“Essentially, what that means is if you quit smoking and start using nicotine patches or nicotine gum or electronic cigarettes, you are not eligible to work for that company if you’re using nicotine replacement products,” he said.

2015 Food and Drug Administration survey found that 7 percent of smokers are able to successfully quit for six months to a year. More than 30 percent of smokers are able to remain smoke-free with the help of some sort of nicotine replacement product, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Nicotine replacement medicine can show up in nicotine-screening urine tests, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Chantix and Zyban are two FDA-approved smoking cessation products that don’t have nicotine.

“There are a lot of vices out there, and they’ve just chosen this one thing,” Siegel said. “That’s just kind of inappropriate.”

The U-Haul announcement does not have enough clarity to warrant full scrutiny, said Lynn Kozlowski, professor of community health and health behavior at the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions.

It’s important to make distinctions between the most harmful of nicotine-laced products, such as cigarettes and cigars, and items such as smokeless tobacco and vaped nicotine products that pose a lower risk to bystanders, Kozlowski recently argued in a paper.

The latter are unlikely to contaminate workplaces or drastically affect work performance, which makes the company appear to be taking a moral stance rather than a health one, he said.

“I bet if U-Haul were to look at their corporate office, they have a coffeepot going most of the time and people addicted to caffeine,” he said, questioning the extent to which companies should care about addictions without being intrusive.

Money and workplace productivity are a concern for companies, said Kevin Schroth, associate professor of health, tobacco control policy and law for the Rutgers School of Public Health.

There’s already data that proves that nonsmokers take fewer breaks and request fewer sick days than their smoking counterparts, he said.

2013 Ohio State University study found that smokers cost employers nearly $6,000 more a year compared with employees who never smoked.

The only downside to U-Haul’s policy is that there is an element of unfairness to people who have been victimized by the tobacco industry, which usually happens at very early ages, Schroth said.

“I don’t have a problem with government policies or employer-based policies that are designed to discourage people to stop using deadly products,” he said.

The Washington Post


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