If you’re in to smoking cigarettes but out of work, your strongest play toward re-employment might be to quit the stick for good.

An increasing number of employers in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S. are now opting to do the previously unthinkable: subject job applicants to nicotine tests and decline, or rescind, a job offer should the results come back positive.

An article published today by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts said that while there is “no comprehensive data on how many U.S companies will not hire smokers,” experts suggest that there are sufficient examples to indicate the policies are becoming more mainstream.

Before you get your Newports in a knot, it’s important to note that while the practice is sure to be divisive, “Massachusetts anti-discrimination law does not offer smokers any legal protection.”

The practice, said the article, has been fairly commonplace in hospitals for several years, giving the example of the Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport, which “recently introduced a smoke-free policy requiring all applicants who are offered jobs at the hospital to take a nicotine test during their pre-hire screening process,” as well as the Cleveland Clinic, which stopped hiring smokers back in 2007.

People have long joked (and jeered) at the irony of doctors smoking, so such a policy in hospitals, while still potentially controversial, at least seems rooted in common sense and the push to instill a more positive public perception. What’s more surprising is despite health-care facilities leading the trend, they’re not the only employers seeking to snuff out smokers. Airlines, retail superstore Lowe’s, the Union-Pacific Railroad, Scott’s Miracle-Gro and other industries are all allegedly getting in on the act as well.

Karen Cobb, a Lowe’s spokesperson,  said she’s unsure where the charge originated, but added that Lowe’s has a smoke-free workplace policy and actually offers health care insurance discounts for non-smokers.

“In North Carolina where Lowe’s is headquartered, there is a statute which prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals for legal conduct such as smoking which occurs outside of the workplace. Many states have such a protection – these laws were designed specifically to protect smokers.”

Supporters of hiring bans based on smoking, the article alleges, “maintain that the average smoker costs companies more than $12,000 a year in health- and disability-related costs while using four 15-minute breaks a day beyond whatever breaks the employer may already offer.” The Massachusetts Hospital Association approximates that smoking costs Massachusetts businesses, government, and tax payers an estimated $6 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity every year.

Opponents, on the other hand, voice legitimate concern that smoker-free policies “establish a troubling precedent of employers intruding into private lives to ban a habit that is legal.”

I’m on the fence about this one. I find smoking to be a revolting habit, and while I’ve never personally been offended that a coworker needs to slip out in the freezing cold to suck some smoke down, I can understand why coworkers and employers would find the unsolicited hour of free time both annoying and unfair. Sharing an elevator–or a cubicle–with a chainsmoker can be tough, too. To me, the potential added healthcare costs of hiring a smoker offer serious leverage to enacting such a policy.

On the other hand, smoking is akin to crocheting or birding or miniature furniture carving Lester Freamon-style–it’s a personal choice that, at least during the hiring process, can’t be determined with certainty to have an affect on that person’s future productivity or above-average cost to the company. Adopting a policy of not hiring smokers could lead to missing out on the best talent available for the job, all before you even gave them a chance. I’m not going to call it discrimination, per se, but it’s similar to typecasting a talented actor after a string of beefcake, shirtless action roles. There’s always room for growth.

Maybe a better start would be to establish a policy that requires smokers to work an extra hour each day to account for their frequent smoke breaks. This, at least, could weed out the less serious candidates and calm the office rabble-rousing.

If you’re wondering how the Anna Jacques Hospital fared after it’s first year under the smoking ban policy, it was named to the Boston Business Journal‘s 2012 “Best Place to Work” list. The criteria? A “combination of employee satisfaction, working conditions and company culture.”

You be the judge.

I’m curious where our readers stand on this issue. Let me know in the comments section below.

Image via Webpronews.com