October 21, 2009 - There's a nationwide trend in the public and private sectors to try to lower health care costs by hiring employees who don't use tobacco products — and to encourage current employees to quit. In the U.S. each year, smoking results in $97 billion in lost productivity and $96 billion in health care expenditures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking is the cause of one in five deaths annually or about 443,000 deaths a year, according to the CDC.
Santa Rosa County Sheriff Wendell Hall will require his employees to pass on taking a puff. A policy that will go into effect January 1, 2010 will prohibit new employees — including deputies, jailers and civilian workers — from using tobacco products on or off the clock. The Santa Rosa Sheriff's Office policy is similar to a policy Pensacola, Florida police officers must adhere to. However, the police policy, which was implemented in 2003, does not apply to the department's civilian employees.
"I feel that we certainly have the right to be selective in not hiring those who are smokers, especially those who show evidence that they have been smoking for many years," Hall said. People already employed at the Sheriff's Office will not be allowed to smoke or use tobacco products at work, but the restriction will not apply to non-work hours. "It's a terrible habit," said Hall, who smoked for about a year. "We just want them to realize, if they could at all possibly give it up, they would be healthier and everybody around them would be healthier."
Kathy Marshall, a Santa Rosa deputy for the past 9½ years, estimates that more than half of current officers smoke. She does not smoke but is not a fan of the policy. "I think it's OK for an officer to smoke, but to do it in a private spot," she said.
Deputy Larry Owens, an 18-year deputy and a smoker, supports the new policy. "I agree with it 100 percent. It's just a matter of professionalism," he said. "I think an officer needs to project a professional image to the public, and I think it will be good. It won't affect me like it will the new hires, but that's something they'll have to deal with themselves."
New Sheriff's Office employees suspected of using tobacco products will have to submit to nicotine tests, Hall said. The first violation will result in a counseling session, the sheriff said. "We are not going to fire them the first time, I'm sure," he said. "But they will be dealt with."
Mary Ann Stalcup, the City of Pensacola's human resources director, said she could not find any records indicating that a police officer has ever been disciplined or fired for violating the policy. She also said the city does not have nicotine tests performed to see if officers are violating the policy.
Hall said he would like to institute other ways of creating a healthier work force, including requiring deputies to pass a regular physical fitness test. Police officers and deputies are required to pass a physical fitness test before they are hired but are not required to pass another test after they are hired.
Reference: Snuff 'em out, Santa Rosa sheriff tells employees
S.R. Sheriff's Office going tobacco-free, Thyrie Bland (firstname.lastname@example.org), Louis Cooper contributed to this report, pnj.com, 10/20/2009.