Louisiana senators refused on April 26 to repeal a law that bans employers from discriminating against smokers, after opponents said the change could lead to widespread firings.
More than 20 years ago, legislators passed a law protecting smokers from workplace discrimination.
Sen. Fred Mills, R-Breaux Bridge, and supporters of repealing the statute said smokers shouldn’t expect employers and co-workers to bear the higher insurance costs to cover them. They pitched Senate Bill 113 as a way to encourage people to quit and to improve health in a state with some of the worst health care statistics in the country.
“The last thing this state needs to be doing is protecting that most lethal, most avoidable cause of death in this state and this country. And (we’re) asking the state to at least get out of the way of employers trying to improve the health of this state. If employers work together, we can change the future of the health of this state,” said Pat Quinlan, CEO of Ochsner Health System.
The repeal, sought by hospitals and health care leaders, was narrowly rejected in a 3-2 vote by the Senate labor committee.
Opponents, including a tobacco industry lobbyist and union leaders, said employers shouldn’t be able to fire someone for using a legal product. They said the change could put thousands of workers at risk of unemployment.
“I beg you, look at and not pass this. It would put 60 percent of my membership in harm’s way. If the employer wants to create a smoke-free environment, they already have the ability to do that,” said Alfred Brandon, representing a Louisiana chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
Senators on the committee said the proposal went too far and the repeal would allow for discrimination against people engaging in legal tobacco use outside of the office.
“It’s legal and it’s done in the home. I have to respect someone’s right,” said Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport.
Supporters noted that Texas and Arkansas have eliminated their smoker protection laws. Mills said 21 other states don’t have laws establishing smokers as a protected class in the workplace, and he said removal of Louisiana’s law wouldn’t force any employers to fire smokers.
Quinlan said overweight workers aren’t considered a protected class, but employers aren’t firing them in large numbers because of their impact on health insurance costs.
Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, said it was ridiculous that Ochsner can’t hire a smoking cessation teacher and require that teacher to be a non-smoker. Martiny supported advancing Mills’ proposal to the full Senate for debate, but he added that he thought it needed to be more limited.
“I wish we could get everybody to quit smoking, but I don’t want to open a can of worms,” he said.
Voting for the bill were Martiny and Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles. Voting against the bill were Peacock and Sens. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, and Ed Murray, D-New Orleans.