Smoking plan likely to be snuffed out in Fort Worth

FORT WORTH -- If you're a smoker, don't worry about hiding those cigarettes before going for a job interview with the city of Fort Worth.

After drawing international attention for a proposal to stop hiring smokers, the city appears ready to snuff out the idea.

If the City Council goes along with a city staff recommendation, the idea of not hiring smokers would effectively be dead.

"Our research indicates that very few public or private employers have changed their hiring practices to exclude tobacco users," said Jason Lamers, chief of staff for Mayor Betsy Price and the City Council. "The preferred approach, and we concur, is to provide employees assistance in tobacco-cessation and disease management."

The city will also consider "future insurance premium surcharges" to nudge employees toward wellness programs and curbing unhealthy habits.

But Lamers said any changes in health insurance premiums likely won't take place until Jan. 1, 2014.

While it looks like smokers will still be able to apply, the city may consider establishing smoke-free campuses and smoke-free perimeters around buildings. No votes are scheduled at today's meeting.

Several council members appear ready to ditch the smoke-free hiring proposal and follow the city staff's recommendation. Both Councilmen Frank Moss and Sal Espino had reservations about the idea when it was discussed last month.

"I think the council wanted to promote healthy lifestyles," Espino said. "I don't know if they wanted to say, 'Hey, we're not hiring smokers.'"

Espino said he was far more comfortable with smoking cessation programs or surcharges to encourage city employees to stop smoking.

"I think that's a good approach," Espino said. "I think there were concerns by several council members about excluding the pool of candidates just because they were smokers."

Councilman Danny Scarth also said he supports the incentive-based approach. As far as dealing with unhealthy lifestyles, Scarth said he supports programs that provide education rather than doing anything that is punitive.

"It's all about giving people the opportunity to have healthier lifestyles," Scarth said.

The suggestion for not hiring smokers came from the mayor's Big Idea Challenge, which encouraged city employees to suggest ways to save money. A committee of city employees chose six ideas, and the winners split a $5,000 cash award donated by Community Trust Bank.

Other prize-winning ideas included keeping Fort Worth employees from idling city vehicles when no work is being done and removing limits on how much developers can contribute to road work.

Twenty-nine states have enacted laws protecting smokers, largely in response to the bans by private companies on hiring smokers, but Texas is not among them.

Locally, the 19,000-employee Baylor Health Care System's policy of not hiring smokers went effect Jan. 1, and has not resulted in a decrease in job applications.

Baylor Health Care System's policy was partly the inspiration from a Fort Worth city employee who suggested the idea in a program to promote cost-cutting ideas.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna