James S. Wood

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote this month on whether to refuse to hire smokers and put a major pinch on the pocketbooks of those who already work there.

The two-part policy would take effect in July 2015. It prevents the county from hiring smokers and slaps a 30 percent health insurance surcharge on employees who do smoke or use other tobacco products.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the ban during their Dec. 16 meeting.

County health officials predict the new policy could save the county more than $1 million annually on health-care costs as tobacco-users retire and are replaced with healthier workers, according to a memo issued by Huckleberry.

“Our taxpayers pay for our health insurance because we are self-insured,” Huckelberry said in an interview. “Anything we can do to reduce the cost is beneficial.”

Pima County estimates 32 percent or 2,304 of its current employees are tobacco users and they cost the county about $13.4 million each year, according to a memo from the Health Department.

Prospective county employees would have to provide proof they have been tobacco and nicotine free for a year in the form of a doctor’s note or drug test.

For current employees, there’s a carrot and a stick. Nonsmokers who sign an affidavit that they are nicotine-free are eligible for a $5 health-care discount each biweekly pay period. Tobacco users will pay 30 percent more on top of their existing health-care costs.

For example, a single employee pays about $21 premium for health care per pay period. If that employee smoked, they would have an additional $6.30 surcharge on each check — that adds up to $163.80 per year. In July 2017 the charge would increase 50 percent of their health-care premium.

Neither rule would apply to people using nicotine replacement products such as gum, patches or sprays, but the ban does include e-cigarettes, Huckelberry said.

“It’s not an attempt to punish anybody,” said Human Resources Director Allyn Bulzomi. “It’s an attempt to encourage people to be healthy.”

County workers won’t be subjected to random nicotine tests, but supervisors will keep an eye out for infringements on the policy.

“We’re going to use reasonable suspicion,” Bulzomi said. “If there is reasonable suspicion we will have a conversation and probably use a test.”

Current smoking employees who can prove they’ve kicked the habit for at least six months will be eligible for the $5 discount and won’t have to pay the extra surcharge.

Bulzomi, a former smoker, said he knows there is a high dropout rate for cessation programs, which is why the county will partner with the health department and the University of Arizona to create programs to help employees.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a public health professor at Boston University and self-described smoke-free workplace advocate, says a ban on employee tobacco use in their personal life goes too far.

“It is a form of employment discrimination,” Siegel said. “Discrimination is essentially making employment decisions based on a group to which someone belongs rather than their qualifications for the job.”

At least 29 states have laws that protect smokers’ rights, but Arizona isn’t one of them according to the American Lung Association.

Siegel argued enacting a tobacco ban is a “slippery slope” because employers could use the same line of reasoning to avoid hiring people who are obese or have hereditary medical problems because their health care costs more too.

Bulzomi said that is not the county’s intention. The human resources director said the county focused on tobacco and nicotine because it is a chosen activity that is proven to increase the cost of health care.

“The use of nicotine is a voluntary lifestyle choice,” Bulzomi said. “It was a choice at one time.”

Contact reporter Mariana Dale at mdale@tucson.com or 573-4242. On Twitter @mariana_dale