FORT WORTH -- If you want to be hired by the city of Fort Worth, being a nonsmoker may soon be required.
In what could be an unprecedented move for a city, officials are studying the idea of telling smokers they need not apply.
Smoke-free hiring policies have been enacted by many private employers, including the Baylor Health Care System, but city officials said they haven't found any other cities that have adopted such a plan.
Locally, the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department bans employees from smoking or chewing tobacco while working or in uniform.
Nationally, 29 states and the District of Columbia offer legal protections for smokers. Texas is not one of them.
The idea is worth contemplating because of the health benefits and lower health insurance costs, said Mayor Betsy Price, who stressed that she wants more information before making a decision.
"I don't think anyone on council has any strong opinions yet because staff is bringing back pros and cons on it," Price said.
At least two City Council members questioned the effect of hiring only nonsmokers, saying it could affect the pool of job applicants.
"I think we could lose a lot of good people in the process by excluding smokers," Councilman Frank Moss said.
Councilman Sal Espino, who is an attorney, said that he could see the legal argument for excluding smokers but that he wasn't sure whether it was a good idea.
"If you get the best person for the job, are you going to care if they smoke or not?" Espino said. "Obviously the taxpayers are paying for the healthcare cost, so maybe it should be more incentive-based rather than mandatory."
The Human Resources Department is reviewing public and private sector tobacco policies and will report to the council May 8.Employee rights
City employee Junior Duran, an ex-smoker, said a nonsmoking rule could reduce healthcare costs, but he wondered whether it infringed on an employee's rights away from the workplace. Though the proposal wouldn't prohibit current employees from smoking, Duran said it might make them feel unwelcome.
"For current employees, who are smokers, will they feel blacklisted?" Duran said.
Some employers haven't stopped at smoking.
A hospital in Victoria has targeted overweight applicants. Citizens Medical Center is also embroiled in a lawsuit over allegations of discrimination against physicians of Indian descent.
But plenty of research shows that eliminating smoking reduces healthcare costs.
A 2009 study by the Journal of Tobacco Policy and Research found that smokers take more sick days than nonsmokers. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke leads to 443,000 premature deaths and $193 billion in healthcare bills and lost productivity annually nationwide.
Nineteen percent of U.S. adults smoked in 2011, down from 42 percent in 1965.
The Fort Worth proposal arose from the mayor's Big Idea Challenge, which encouraged city employees to suggest ways to save money.
Six ideas, including the nonsmoking proposal, were selected by a committee of city employees, and the winners split a $5,000 cash award donated by Community Trust Bank.
Among the other prize-winning ideas include keeping city employees from idling city vehicles when no work is being done and removing limits on how much developers can contribute to road work.
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