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Spokane Regional Health District urges companies to ban smoking, hire nonsmokers

Thomas Hammer Coffee roast master Jared Veselits roasts a batch of decaffeinated coffee on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, at the company's warehouse in downtown Spokane. Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasting needed employees with a good sense of smell and taste, so they stopped hiring new smokers about 10 years ago. The Spokane Regional Health District is encouraging other companies to consider doing the same.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Thomas Hammer Coffee roast master Jared Veselits roasts a batch of decaffeinated coffee on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, at the company's warehouse in downtown Spokane. Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasting needed employees with a good sense of smell and taste, so they stopped hiring new smokers about 10 years ago. The Spokane Regional Health District is encouraging other companies to consider doing the same. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

As Thomas Hammer Coffee’s roast master, Jared Veselits relies on a keen sense of smell for quality control. The ability to detect caramelizing sugars helps him determine whether the coffee beans are roasting at the correct heat and temperature.

“We kind of smell where the roast is at,” Veselitis said Monday, while Costa Rica-grown beans poured out of a roaster at the Spokane-based company. If the roasting process is too slow or too fast, the coffee’s flavor is compromised.

The ability to smell and taste nuances in flavor is critical in the business, which is one reason Thomas Hammer stopped hiring smokers more than a decade ago, said Janet Williams, the company’s vice president of retail.

It’s a move embraced by several local companies. Reasons behind policies not to hire smokers vary. Some companies are trying to control health care costs. Others don’t want employees bringing the smell of cigarettes into their businesses.

When Paige McGowan of the Spokane Regional Health District started encouraging companies to establish tobacco-free campuses or policies that prohibit hiring smokers, she was surprised to discover that some already had long-standing policies.

“People who smoke in Washington are not a protected class … So these policies are completely legal,” said McGowan, the health district’s tobacco, electronic cigarette and marijuana prevention coordinator.

By addressing smoking in the workplace, the health district is trying to focus attention on tobacco use, McGowan said. About 18 percent of Spokane County residents light up regularly.

Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., accounting for about 480,000 deaths annually, according the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We spend a lot of time at our worksites,” McGowan said. “Creating environments where people who want to quit are not being exposed to secondhand smoke, or to people who are smoking, has been shown to be a best practice.”

McGowan encourages companies to list anti-tobacco policies prominently on job applications and address chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes as well as smoking. The health district has developed a guide to help businesses create and enforce policies.

Companies can “grandfather in” existing employees who smoke, so that the policy only affects new hires, McGowan said. The level of enforcement also varies.

Avista Corp. stopped hiring smokers for its 1,400-employee Washington workforce in the 1990s, but the policy relies on the honor system, said George Brown, an Avista human resources manager.

“The application states that we’re a smoke-free environment,” Brown said. Applicants check “yes” or “no” to a question about whether they smoke.

Even without testing or enforcement, the system appears to work, he said. Avista credits the policy for helping keep employee health care costs down, even as its workforce ages.

Some states have passed laws prohibiting employers from refusing to hire people because they smoke. And the ethics of shutting out smokers remains a matter of debate. In 2013, the New England Journal of Medicine published opposing views on the topic.

Not hiring smokers reduces companies’ health insurance costs and results in fewer employee sick days and higher worker productivity, supporters said. Some hospitals and clinics also say their employees need to be nonsmokers to set a good example for patients.

But critics say hiring bans disproportionately affect people who are poor and less educated, a demographic that is more likely to smoke. One group of researchers noted that other high-risk health behaviors, such as being overweight or drinking sugary sodas, aren’t singled out with hiring bans. Most smokers want to quit, but the highly addictive nature of nicotine makes it difficult, they said.

At Thomas Hammer, at least one job applicant quit smoking so he could work for the company, said Williams, the vice president.

“I think it makes for a healthier workplace,” Thomas Hammer, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, said of the policy.

Unlike other unhealthy behaviors, smoking affects bystanders, Hammer said. Even third-hand smoke − the residual nicotine and other chemicals that cling to a smoker’s clothing, skin and other surfaces − is a concern. According to the Mayo Clinic, third-hand smoke poses a cancer risk to nonsmokers.

And from baristas to coffee roasters, employees’ ability to judge the quality of the product is essential, Hammer said.

“If your coffee is not perfect at 7 a.m. every day, your whole day could be off,” he said.


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