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Politician wants to force workers to try to quit smoking

Corinne Reilly / The Washington Post /

FAIRFAX, Va. — The first time Gerald Hyland of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in Virginia tried to cut smokers from the county’s payroll, more than a decade ago, it didn’t exactly go over well. His suggestion that the county stop hiring smokers brought him nothing but angry criticism.

His latest idea — forcing county employees who smoke to take classes to help them quit — isn’t gaining much support, either. This is, after all, Virginia, a state built on tobacco and the Jeffersonian ideals of limited government. Few have accused the commonwealth of being a nanny state.

What’s next, some wonder — requiring obese workers to enroll in Weight Watchers?

But for Hyland, a Democrat whose father smoked and died of lung cancer at age 50, all of that is beside the point.

“I think it’s time for us to get serious about this,” he said.

Hyland’s idea represents a new front in the smoking wars: Instead of making the public domain smoke-free, some are pushing for it to be smoker-free.

In the workplace, tobacco users are often required to pay higher health insurance premiums, and in recent years, some employers have begun adopting policies against hiring smokers. Although the hiring restriction is most popular among hospitals and health-care organizations, it is becoming increasingly common in other industries, despite lawsuits, the objections of civil rights groups and smoker-protection laws.

In Fairfax, lighting up is prohibited at bus shelters and inside county buildings, and county employees are offered free, voluntary cessation classes. Hyland first floated the idea of making the classes mandatory at a board meeting last month. During a discussion about rising health-care costs, wellness programs and county health insurance, he suggested that the county investigate whether it has the legal authority to require the classes.

A county spokeswoman, Merni Fitzgerald, said the county’s attorneys are looking into that question. Other government lawyers said the matter isn’t clear-cut. Although none was willing to say that such a requirement could withstand a lawsuit, several said the county might have the authority to adopt the rule.

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