According to U-Haul’s announcement, the company plans to note its policy on job applications, question applicants about their nicotine usage in interviews, and require them to consent to nicotine testing in the 17 states that allow it. The policy will apply to any nicotine use, which means that vapers and other users of smokeless tobacco will be excluded from the hiring pool, in addition to smokers. The policy won’t apply to people already employed with the company.
Read: The vaping overreaction
Nicotine is, indeed, tied to some serious health risks. Globally, smoking cigarettes kills about 8 million people each year. But employers seeking to control ever more aspects of their employees’ lives is already a troubling trend. It’s bleak when anyone’s health is regarded as a malfunction in workplace machinery, but the problem becomes even worse when these expectations are foisted on the workers least equipped to fight back.
U-Haul expects new workers, a lot of them doing low-wage physical labor, to abstain from a legal, common, and profoundly addictive habit that many pick up in high school. The company currently lists hundreds of openings for janitors, maintenance workers, truck drivers, and mechanics—the type of work often done by people with inconsistent access to health care, high stress levels, and few financial resources. They’re people already acutely beholden to corporate whims for even the simplest necessities, like feeding their children or buying gas to drive to work.
Refusing work to tobacco users is an extreme measure, but it’s not unheard-of in the United States. Alaska Airlines, Miracle-Gro, and some health-care companies forbid smokers in their ranks in states where it’s allowed, in addition to countless others with rules on tracking physical activity, weight, and sleep. This increase in managerial nosiness was encouraged for years by regulations in the Affordable Care Act, and now more than 80 percent of large employers offer wellness programs, many of which prompt workers to avoid punishment or compete for cash by counting calories, tracking steps, or losing weight. Some programs go further, requiring employees to maintain a certain waist size to avoid fees.
The issue with this approach is that it positions personal responsibility as a solution to problems that have little to do with individual choice. Codifying well-being into a competition with cash prizes—let alone using “wellness” as a criterion for hiring in the first place—posits that all workers can and should be striving for a particular set of (employer-determined) physical and mental goals that they could reach if they just tried.
In reality, individual health is largely a product of wealth. Money buys nutritious food, good medical care, safe housing, and clean water. In the case of smokers, it can buy services and medication to help them deal with a notoriously difficult addiction, and healthier substitutes for the stress relief that many of nicotine’s 47 million U.S. users say the drug provides. It buys better childhood education, which helps prevent people from picking up smoking in the first place. Nearly 90 percent of smokers start before they’re 18 years old.