Soldiers fighting for right to smoke?

Posted: Apr 20, 2005 12:00 AM

It's nice to hear Americans talk about privacy and fighting for their rights. But sometimes I have to say: Do you know what you're talking about?

 In Okemos, Mich., a 71-year-old health nut named Howard Weyers runs a health-care benefits company called Weyco. Weyers thinks his employees should be healthy, too, so years ago, he hired an in-house private trainer. Any employee who works with her and then meets certain exercise goals earns a $110 bonus per month.

 So far, so good. But then, in November 2003, Weyers made an announcement that shocked his staff: "I'm introducing a smoking policy," he said.

 "You're not going to smoke if you work here. Period."

 No smoking at work. No smoking at home. No nicotine patch or nicotine gum. The company would do random tests and fire anyone with nicotine in his system.

 "Two hundred people in a room," Weyers recalls, "and they went at me."

 "I yelled out," said Anita Epolito, "'You can't do that to me, it's against the law.'"

 That's not true. In Michigan and 19 other states, employers have the legal right to fire anyone, as long as they don't violate discrimination laws (for age, gender, race, religion, disabilities, etc.).

 Weyers gave his employees 15 months to quit smoking, and he offered assistance to help.

 Today, he calls the policy a success. Twenty Weyco employees who smoked, stopped. Some of their spouses even quit. 

 But the four workers who didn't quit were fired, and they are furious.

 "I'm just thrown out because this person decided, one day, this is what he wanted to do," said Epolito.

 Virg Bernero, a Michigan state senator, wants to make such firings illegal. He helped publicize the fired Weyco workers' complaint -- in the process publicizing himself; he's expected to run for mayor of Lansing this year -- and now he's introduced a bill to prohibit employers from firing anyone for anything legal they do at home.

 "What's it going to be tomorrow? That you['ve] got to lose a certain number of pounds . . . in order to keep your job?" Just as the law restricts discrimination on the basis of race or sex, he said, "we'll have an amendment for legal activities, for privacy outside the workplace. Because this goes too far."

 Bernero's thinking is muddled. I think whether you smoke, get fat or go skydiving should be your choice. I say "Give Me a Break" to busybody politicians in New York and California who've banned smoking in every bar and restaurant. But there's a big difference between government banning things . . . and Howard Weyers doing it. We have only one government. When government bans something, it bans it for everybody in its jurisdiction. That's why the Bill of Rights limits government power. But Weyco is just one company. Its employees have other choices. There are other jobs available in Michigan.

 Cara Stiffler has already found a "better" job but still told me it should have been illegal for Weyers to fire her.  "I want my children to see that I stood up for my rights as an American. That's what . . . the men are over fighting in Iraq for, is my freedom."

 Give Me a Break. Freedom includes the right to quit your job, but freedom also includes the right not to employ someone you don't want to employ. No one forced Stiffler and Epolito to work for Weyco. But now, they want to force Howard Weyers to employ smokers. He built the company. He owns the company. What about his freedom?

 I asked Epolito if she "owned her job." No, she said, but "there's a relationship there."

 There was a relationship, that's true. To put it simply, the relationship was that Weyers thought employing Epolito was a good thing and Epolito thought working for Weyco was a good thing. Weyers doesn't own Epolito; she's entitled to pursue her happiness, not his, and if that means smoking, that's her right. But Epolito doesn't own Weyers; he's entitled to live by his values, not hers, and if that means not employing smokers, that's his right. Government smoking bans take away our freedom. But all Weyers did was exercise his.

John Stossel is co-anchor of ABC News' "20/20" and the author of "Give Me a Break," just released in paperback.