JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - A local hospital system is implementing a controversial new hiring policy. Starting March 1, Mountain States Health Alliance will not hire applicants who use tobacco products.
Mountain States Health Alliance is starting a new policy -- "Beginning March 1, Mountain States will begin screening for tobacco use as part of our pre-employment screening process," explalined MSHA communications manager Teresa Hicks.
It has some Johnson City residents scratching their heads. "I don't see the need to disclose information about being a smoker or not, it's like a little bit of infringement to me," said resident Storm Ketron.
"It's really unfair to ban something that's not illegal and now you're suddenly getting punished for something you could've been doing for a really long time," said resident Heather Maxwell.
Teresa Hicks tells News 5 they're doing it for the health of their employees. "As healthcare providers, we see every day the devastating effects that tobacco has. We believe that it's our responsibility to set an example for a healthy workforce and healthy community," she said.
Current employees who use tobacco will not be fired; this change only pertains to new applicants. "For individuals who currently work for MSHA who do smoke, we offer every opportunity to help them to quit smoking. We offer free classes and we also offer reimbursement for smoking secession products," Hicks continues.
But some people we spoke with say that if they have to have the policy, it should apply to all employees. "They should set standards the same level for everyone," Heather Maxwell said.
Resident Daniel Morefield tells us, "I think it's definitely discriminatory. [Cigarettes are] a legal substance and it's like alcohol. I feel like they're going to persecute people for using one, they should have it across the board."
But Hicks defends the new policy, adding that it also benefits patients. "We have a lot of workers who work in close contact with individuals who have fragile health conditions and might be especially sensitive to cigarette smoke. Just carrying that in on healthcare providers could cause irritation to those patients," she said.
If someone who smokes tries to apply to MSHA after March 1 and does not get hired, they can try again in six months if they have quit smoking.
We spoke to Jim Wozniak with Wellmont Health System who says they do not have this policy, but they do however charge higher insurance premiums to employees who smoke.