Fairfax considers forcing workers to quit smoking

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Photo - Discarded cigarettes (Examiner file photo)
Discarded cigarettes (Examiner file photo)
Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland

Fairfax County officials may consider requiring all county-employed smokers to enroll in wellness programs to snuff out their bad habit, as the county searches for ways to reduce its soaring health care costs.

Supervisor Gerry Hyland, D-Mount Vernon, suggested the anti-smoking initiative after his earlier proposal to bar the county from hiring smokers was met by what he described as "outrage."

"If we can't not hire smokers, then the next question is can we require rather than encourage persons to have to participate in programs to help them kick the habit?" Hyland said.

Other board members suggested that they would be willing to target smokers, who typically have higher health care costs, though they didn't specifically endorse Hyland's proposal.

Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield, said he'd consider making smokers who work for the county pay more money toward their health insurance.

Others questioned whether the county could force smokers to quit.

"We can encourage [quitting], but I don't think we can legally enforce it," Supervisor Penny Gross, D-Mason, said Wednesday. "It's rights versus responsibility, and I tend to err on the side of rights."

Randy Creller, chairman of the county's Employee Advisory Council, expressed concern that the county would try to force employees to quit smoking.

"You can't force anybody to do anything," Creller said. "You can offer incentives ... but smoking is a legal entity, like drinking alcohol. Employees have the right to do whatever they want."

Paula Woodrum, president of the Fairfax County Government Employees Union, said workers' reaction is going to depend on what the county ends up proposing.

"If it's just a voluntary outreach educational program, I don't see where it would raise any issues," Woodrum said. "But if it's mandatory, it might."

The mandatory no-smoking proposal was raised at time when the County Board of Supervisors is trying to combat rising health care costs. Gross and Herrity said the county's expenses have doubled over the last decade. They suggested Fairfax could reduce some of those costs by using competing insurance providers and rewarding healthy employees.

The county also may consider creating a wellness plan that offers lower premiums to employees who remain healthy.

"Wellness programs are proven to reduce employee absenteeism, reduce disability claims and result in a healthier and more productive workforce," Herrity said. "It is important that we be a leader in these cutting-edge health care cost reduction strategies and employee wellness care."

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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Taylor Holland

Staff writer
The Washington Examiner