Commentary by William Patrick, a writer at Watchdog.org, who can be contacted at william@floridawatchdog.org. 

Flagler County commissioners are taking a tough new stance against tobacco users looking for work – by considering nicotine a banned drug.

Beginning Oct. 1, prospective county employees will be required to take a nicotine test in addition to pre-employment drug screening for illegal drugs.

A failed test would not only deny an otherwise qualified applicant a job, but would also prohibit employment with the county for another 12 months.

Obamacare Will Force One Florida County to Make Nicotine Use Illegal

Nicotine, whether in smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes or regular cigarettes, would be considered a drug by county officials. Photo Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP 

“The tobacco ban applies to anything that would produce nicotine,” said Joseph Mayer, Flagler County’s community services director. That includes cigarettes, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes, pipes and snuff.

Job applicants also must sign an affidavit stating, under penalty of perjury, that they have not used tobacco within one-year of employment.“It’s the same thing as drug use,” Mayer said. “We have a drug-free policy where everyone is tested for drug use before they come on board, and if they start using afterwards we won’t know until either a random test or a workers compensation incident.”

Mayer said the county has no desire to be the “tobacco police” but testing positive for nicotine after being hired could result in termination.

The new policy is aimed at reducing health insurance costs. According to widely cited research, smokers can cost employers about $5,800 more annually than nonsmokers.

But the tobacco ban, as opposed to just smoking, also coincides with the tobacco surcharge under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Flagler County employees are insured through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, which acknowledges tobacco users will pay more under Obamacare.

Beginning in January, the tobacco surcharge will allow health insurers to charge up to 50 percent more in health insurance premiums, driving up costs for both public and private employers.

The American Lung Association opposes the measure on the grounds that the penalty does not effectively reduce tobacco use.

Critics of so-called tobacco lifestyle bans often cite discrimination and privacy violations. But federal law does not provide tobacco users equal protection, and Florida state law does not protect off-work tobacco use.

Other local governments have enacted similar laws, and Florida hospitals have done the same. In 1995, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that public employees have no expectation of privacy when it comes to tobacco use.

Flagler’s 635 current employees are exempt from the new tobacco policy, which was unanimously passed by the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners on Aug. 19.

When asked if the new tobacco ban would apply to the county commissioners, Mayer responded in an email, “As such, the policy does not apply to our County Commission or those individuals who may run for office in the future.”

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