The best way to hire productive employees is to look for people with qualifications, talent, honesty and commitment. Now, however, a small but growing number of employers are looking for something else as well: job applicants who don’t smoke. As much as we despair of the death and damage caused by tobacco, this new employment criterion strikes us as a lamentable and unwarranted intrusion into applicants’ private lives — and one that should worry anyone in this country who has an elevated risk for any sort of injury or illness. In other words, most of us.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System, which includes the university hospital, is the latest employer to adopt these ill-considered new rules. Beginning in July, it will reject any job seeker who admits to having been a smoker within the previous six months. The university’s health system justifies the new no-smokers policy on the grounds that it will have a healthier workforce and lowered health-benefit costs.

It’s one thing to ask people to bear more of the cost of their preventable illness by paying higher premiums, but to deprive them of the chance at a livelihood because they engage in perfectly legal behavior is outrageous. By all means, outlaw smoking in the workplace, but as long as employees are doing a good job, their legal, personal behavior on their own time and outside the office is just that — personal.

It’s unclear whether such policies would actually save employers money. Smokers do have increased health risks — smoking is still the top cause of premature death in the United States — but are they a worse risk than people who text while driving or who don’t wear seat belts? And if the goal is indeed simple economics and improved health, the slope toward ridiculous employment biases is so slippery, it might as well be coated with trans fats.

Certain ethnic groups, for instance, have strong genetic predispositions to Type II diabetes; other people might have a parent with Huntington’s disease or a family tendency toward early heart disease or one cancer or another. Should employers bar them as well? What about the person who has eaten a Big Mac in the past 30 days?

Race and ethnicity complicate the situation.

In Pennsylvania, African Americans are about 33 percent more likely to smoke than whites. So the university’s new policy may have a disproportionate effect on them.

As a society we naturally feel more sympathy toward people who cannot control their health problems, as opposed to those who have made a decision to take up a dangerous habit. But if the motivation is simply financial, employers shouldn’t be making moral judgments about one health risk versus another.

In the end, the best workers are chosen on the basis of the work they do, not their bad health habits.

Editorial by the Los Angeles Times

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