Smoking Ban, Weight Tax, and Bias

Two news items bring to mind themes addressed in At-Will At Work, a recent post about Scotts Co.’s termination of an employee for smoking. First, the global smoking zone continues to shrink. Germany announced last Friday that it intends to ban smoking in restaurants, discos, schools, and public buildings. The ban would not affect smoking in pubs, bars, or beer tents unlike laws more-restrictive anti-smoking laws enacted recently by Britain, France, Ireland, and Italy. Good news for those who like breathing cleaner air, although I’m puzzled by one policy choice: why ban smoking in discos and allow it in bars?

The second is prompted by comments to the cited post that also arose in class discussion, namely that employers’ could target obesity using the same rationales that support terminations for non-smoking. In an article titled Extra Weight, Higher Costs The New York Times reported on Saturday that “being fact costs money – tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.” Factors imposing a “weight tax,” if you will, on obese people include higher life insurance premiums and medical expenses, lower incomes, and less accumulation of wealth. In discussing weight discrimination in employment the article states: “[S]ome employers do not want to be burdened with higher health insurance costs. Other times it is a matter of appearance or a belief that ‘people of size’ . . . are lazy, weak-willed or considered too unattractive to interact with customers.” The article notes that Michigan – ironically the home of Weyco, a company mentioned in At-Will At Work for its refusal to employ employees who smoke – is the only state that outlaws weight discrimination. (The connection between smoking cessation and weight gain means there is a wise-ass remark to be mined from these facts. I’ll leave the spade work to others.)

The sidebar to the online version of second article contains a link to Implicit Association Test, a Harvard-based demonstration site for “a method the demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences” in our beliefs. Before taking one of the tests the user must click on on the following warning: “I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed.” Thinking “I can get my carefully-constructed self image dismantled and thrown back in my face. How fun!” I clicked through to the test menu. It offers tests for unconscious reactions on race, religion, disability, gender and science, sexuality, weapons, and other matters. I took the Weight (‘Fat – Thin’) Implicit Association Test. The test itself is somewhat maddening. After responding to a brief questionnaire one sits at the keyboard and makes binary choices by pressing the e or i keys in response to words and images flashed on the screen. First come a series of faces which one classifies as “fat” or “thin.” Next come a series of words which one classifies as “good” (joy, laughter) or “bad” (evil, agony). The words and images are then mixed in various ways that require one to consider which key to press, e.g. for some sequences one must press i for “bad” words and “thin” faces, for another one must press i for “”good” words and “thin” faces. Through the miracle of psychological testing the results are calibrated and the verdict rendered: you are biased, or not, based on weight. The entire test takes about ten minutes, if you care to run the risk of self-knowledge.

By the way, the test told me I do not make negative associations based on weight. Whether that is true or a consequence of my keen self-awareness while taking the test will require further testing to determine.

Mark Landler, Germany to Restrict Smoking, Joining Other Nations in Europe, The New York Times, 3-Dec-06; Damon Darlin, Extra Weight, Higher Costs, New York Times, 2-Dec-06

8 thoughts on “Smoking Ban, Weight Tax, and Bias”

  1. The difference I see between discriminating against weight versus smoking is that smoking is a habit. Granted that some people have bad eating habits that damage their health, overweight problems are sometimes genetic whereas smoking is typically a well-developed habit.

    Getting fired for a perfectly legal activity is unfair, but if a smoker does not support the non-smoking philosophies of his employer, would his job performance really be as efficient as working for another company that accepts smoking? Probably not. More or less, The Scotts Company’s smoking intolerance is like preventing someone from breathing. Most well-developed habits come close to becoming involuntary activities, and I think habitual smoking is practically like involuntary breathing. When a company develops policies that prohibit such activities, it is suffocating its own employees. (And Scott swears he was already trying to quit smoking!)

    Although difficult to tell where the line is drawn between work and off-duty conduct, I think companies should always draft reasonable corporate philosophies. Employees may then review these goals and decide whether or not they can commit themselves to the job.

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