Monday, December 19, 2005

Choking on their own Smoke

The WHO announced a radical new strategy in their campaign against smoking: they will no longer hire smokers. This isn't banning smoking in the workplace, or promoting a healthy lifestyle for employees, this is bald discrimination. Like it or not, smoking is a legal activity in this country.

Leonard Glantz has responded in the Washington Post with a withering critique of the WHO's new hiring practice. Glantz's article is well worth reading and I won't attempt a summary here. I would like to add, however, that it's not entirely clear to me, at least off the top of my head, whether the WHO's actions are even legal.
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The legality, I suspect, depends heavily on the legal status of the WHO which by virtue of its affiliation with the United Nations isn't exactly a private employer but, on the other hand, isn't exactly a governmental organization either. And, while smoking status clearly is not a suspect classification (as race is, and as gender and sexual orientation arguably should be), shouldn't the WHO have to satisfy a "rational basis" requirement nevertheless?

Perhaps that standard is met by the self-stated principle that the "WHO tries to encourage people to try and lead a healthy life." But if that is the case then where, as Glantz rightly asks, do we draw the line? How many behaviors, in addition to smoking, are arguably incompatible with leading a "healthy life"?

Legality aside, the WHO's anti-smoking statement, if there is one, is being obliterated in this instance by a much more prominent display of narrow-minded intolerance. Imagine if I were a smoker myself - then I would really be up in arms.

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