Springfield hospital chain: Smoking workers not wanted

Sunday, September 29, 2013 | 7:26 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Smokers shouldn't bother applying to Springfield-based hospital chain CoxHealth.

CoxHealth President and CEO Steve Edwards announced Friday that potential employees will soon have to pass a nicotine screening before being hired, the Springfield News-Leader reported. The nicotine test will detect nicotine from traditional sources, such as cigarettes and chewing tobacco, as well as newer products, including e-cigarettes and nicotine patches.

The policy will take effect Nov. 21, the date of the "The Great American Smokeout," when the American Cancer Society urges smokers to quit or make a plan to quit.

"We are doing this for the reasons that we cannot reconcile that as a health care provider with a mission to improve our community, we have not been active enough to change these high smoking rates in our community," Edwards said.

Although about 20 percent of CoxHealth's approximately 9,000 employees smoke, the hospital chain has been making it more difficult to do so. CoxHealth's campuses became tobacco-free in 2006, and in 2009 the health system expanded the policy to prohibit the use of all tobacco products within 500 feet of facilities and in all company vehicles.

"We want employees who are healthy; we think our employees must be role models to lead our community, to inspire our community to be a better place to work," Edwards said.

People who fail the test will be offered the chance to enroll in free tobacco-cessation classes and encouraged to reapply after going without tobacco for 90 days. Edwards said new hires who take up smoking will put their jobs at risk, although the company hasn't determined how that will be monitored.

Current employees of the medical system will not be affected by the policy, although Edwards said he is contributing $15,000 of his own money to the newly-created Charlie Fund, which will dole out payments to current employees who quit and are nicotine-free a year later. The fund is named after his father, he said.

"He dedicated his career to health care, but he struggled with smoking his entire life," he said.

Similar hiring policies also have been put in place elsewhere, including at St. Louis-based SSM Health Care, Cape Girardeau-based St. Francis Medical Center, Kansas City-based Truman Medical Centers and St. Louis-based BJC  HealthCare.

Missouri law makes it illegal to refuse to hire an employee "because the individual uses lawful alcohol or tobacco products off the premises of the employer during hours such individual is not working for the employee" unless it impacts job performance. At the new conference, however, Edwards cited a line exempting "not-for-profit organizations whose principal business is health care promotion," along with religious organizations and church-operated institutions.

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