Focus: Smokers’ rights

When it comes to health, Indiana is in the red zone.

Unlike football, it’s not a good place to be.

The America’s Health Rankings report uses red to identify the bottom 10 states in its annual ratings. For the third straight year, Indiana joins that unfortunate group, ranking 41st in each of those years.

Among the factors dragging us down are high levels of obesity, smoking and physical inactivity.

Hoosiers’ rate of obesity might be our most disturbing statistic, because it’s steadily growing worse over the past quarter-century. Our obesity rate passed the 30 percent mark in 2010 and has continued rising to reach 31.8 percent in this year’s survey.

While our rate of smokers ranks poorly against other states, at least we’re improving in that statistic, falling to 21.9 percent after a 25.6 percent mark only two years ago.

An idea that could affect our smoking rate is likely come up in the Indiana General Assembly next year.

We suspect many Hoosiers don’t know it, but Indiana has a Smokers Bill of Rights, passed in 1991. We’re among 29 states with similar laws. Short and simple, Indiana’s law says an employer may not require an employee to refrain from using tobacco products while off duty.

State Rep. Wes Culver, R-Goshen, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce are aiming to repeal the smokers’ protection. That would allow employers to discriminate against smokers when hiring.

Culver has said businesses should not be forced to pay high health insurance costs for smokers. However, our “bill of rights” law already allows employers to use financial incentives, such as higher insurance rates, to discourage smoking.

Culver’s crusade should pose an intriguing puzzle for his fellow Republicans, who dominate the Indiana legislature.

If you believe in free choice and limited government, where do you come down on this question?

Culver approaches the issue from his role as an employer who has seen health care costs go up.

“I’m for freedom of choice,” he said. “You can choose to smoke, but I should be able to choose not to hire you.”

But a conservative legislator also could view the issue as a question of individual freedom. Even nonsmokers might find it distasteful to see their smoking friends and neighbors penalized for engaging in a perfectly legal behavior when they are off duty.

And if employers can use health insurance risks as a basis to discriminate in hiring, who’s next — the 31 percent of Hoosiers who are obese?

As a practical matter, Indiana employers aren’t going to fire all smokers. They couldn’t run their shops and factories without a whopping one-fifth of our population.

But the Smokers Bill of Rights seems like an unnecessary regulation. Other laws prevent discrimination against factors people can’t change — their gender, race or disabilities. The Smokers Bill of Rights protects a lifestyle choice, when many other such choices have no special protection.

Even without a law protecting smokers, some employers are going to have to hire them or face a labor shortage. But a law requiring a business to hire smokers probably was a bad idea in the first place.