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Next month sees the start of plain packaging laws for all tobacco products sold in Australia. From December all tobacco must be sold in olive green plain packets featuring no commercial logos. Australia is the world’s first to try this approach to stamping out smoking; but I wonder how much further this fight can go and whether the workplace will now become the new frontier?

Even though Australia’s public health insurance program does not discriminate against smokers there is increasing appetite for this to change. The annual Private Health Insurance Report conducted by CoreData suggests that most Australians think those who lead unhealthy lifestyles should pay more for private health insurance; their survey of 1213 people reported 73% agreeing on higher premiums for smokers.

So, should Australian employers follow suit? Whilst we are at the forefront when it comes to tobacco packaging, further advances in policies and attitude are occurring overseas.

In the US, some employers have already taken initiative in the face of rising health insurance premiums; ProMedica, owning several hospitals in Michigan and Ohio, only hire employees who pass a pre-employment nicotine screen. This policy was implemented back in January 2011 and is still going strong. There is, however, a clear financial incentive because US employers typically cover the cost of employee health insurance. Other US organisations have also implemented smoking cessation programs followed by zero tolerance, demanding increased health standards from employees and even random drug and nicotine screenings.

Only 29 US states have legislation in place to protect employees’ use of tobacco from becoming a condition of employment, but for many employers, it remains a grey area. Whilst it is not a requirement to permit smoking breaks on or off the work premises, prohibition can be a gateway to intrusion of privacy and even discrimination.

EI asked 5,000 business owners and HR managers:

Should Australia also adopt stricter approaches to managing smokers in the workplace?

74% said yes.

Do you think this stricter approach should include nicotine screening and zero tolerance policies?

71% said no

Do you think smoking is only an issue if it starts to impact performance, such as in time-dependant jobs?

61% said yes

So what’s the solution?


A few years back – General Electric Company in the US decided to pay any employee who managed to quit and stay off the cigarettes over $1,100. One year later, 15% were still non-smokers, which according to them, is a relatively good success rate. They attribute this success to providing an immediate reward for quitting rather than trusting the employee to see the long term health benefits.

“You may incur a fee…”

At the other end of the spectrum, Walmart enforced a surcharge policy targeting “unhealthy” employees, including smokers. Some claimed this was to cover the associated costs, others believe it was more about recovering the costs of lost productivity. ($100 was a popular entry point for fees.)

Full stop.

The Australian Federal Department of Health famously banned any form of cigarette breaks for all staff in 2010, and doesn’t even offer an incentive, aside from counselling for anyone who would like help.

Home is where the ban is

A block of apartments in Ashfield, Sydney banned smoking in any part of the entire building last year, including balconies and the front entrance now displays the sign “Smokers Not Welcome Here”. The state of New York also recently pushed for a full ban in apartment blocks containing over 10 apartments.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a sales executive was terminated two days into his new appointment after his employer discovered he smoked at home. (Upon commencing, he signed an employment contract agreeing not to smoke at work.) Shortly after, he mentioned to the employer’s wife that, although he had no intention of smoking at work, he did enjoy a cigarette at home. He was subsequently dismissed on the basis that working from home was part of the job requirements.

Further north in Scotland, you can be made to stop smoking in your own home at least one hour before you expect a visit from a public official, as it will technically become a workplace during their presence.

Back in Australia, this approach can apply to managing teleworkers, as a no-smoking policy relates to whichever work location, during the agreed working hours. This is leading to increasing number of job advertisements specifying that smokers will not be considered for available positions. Whilst not illegal, this is certainly discriminatory.

What do you think? Do employees really need to be bribed, incentivised or fined into living a healthier life?

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Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

Ben is the CEO of Employment Innovations (EI), which holds over two decades experience helping Australian businesses navigate the legal and administrative challenges of being an employer.

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