Medical unions say denying smokers employment is a step too far in the quest for a smokefree New Zealand and could lead to obese people not being employed in the health sector.
The Waikato Times yesterday reported that the Waikato District Health Board was seeking legal advice on whether it could refuse to employ smokers.
A poll on the Times website yesterday revealed mixed opinions - with 56 per cent for the move, and 44 per cent against.
While medical unions spoken to by the Times supported the board's move to become smokefree, they were worried at the direction in which it was heading.
New Zealand Medical Association president Paul Ocklefordsaid it was great to see the board taking its role - to become smokefree by 2025 - seriously.
"It's really important for staff to stop smoking because they are also role models for patients, but I guess the question is whether or not it's a step too far and whether it's a discrimination issue," he said.
"There are other important health issues, one of those being obesity, and it's that question of whether or not you then don't employ people for other reasons that makes it a discrimination issue."
Dr Ockleford said the association strongly supported any initiative that reduced smoking. "But we need to make sure it's not discriminating against one segment of the community inappropriately."
He said smoking rates among medical staff in New Zealand and Australia was actually "extremely low".
The New Zealand Nurses Organisation said the board should take a more compassionate approach and provide the support for staff to give up.
"We don't support the proposal of not employing someone because they smoke," Lesley Harry, industrial adviser for the DHB sector, said.
She also found it interesting that the board was using the loss of tikanga - Maori beliefs - through the death of Maori from tobacco as one of the reasons to bring in the ban.
"Unemployment is also a problem among Maori and this policy would potentially increase that."
She said increased unemployment also bought with it other health issues.
"We would like to see that the prohibition doesn't extend to outside [the work environment] and clearly we will work with the DHB in respect to that."
The organisation had a similar issue when the Auckland board was considering a similar move last year. But, after investigating it, they stopped short of denying smokers work.
Waikato board spokeswoman Mary Anne Gill said they were encouraging staff to quit smoking, with about 600 staff taking up their offer of a smoke cessation programme. Currently, the board will not employ a smoker seeking work in a regulatory role such as a health promoter or smokefree worker.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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