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Hiring trend: Tobacco users need not apply

Tobacco users need not apply.

That's the message a growing number of health systems across the country are sending potential employees.

Geisinger Health System, based in Danville, joined two other Pennsylvania health systems that won't hire tobacco users. The company said it would begin testing new hires for use of cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, snuff, nicotine patches and gum as part of its pre-employment physical process on Feb. 1.

That's not the path West Penn Allegheny Health System in Pittsburgh is taking, said Barton Metzger, chief human resources officer.

The health system rejected a "punitive approach" and strengthened its smoking cessation program while offering economic and noneconomic incentives to limit health risks, he said.

"We're looking at a number of ways to limit our health care spending," Metzger said.

UPMC, the region's largest health care organization with 20 hospitals in the region, also does not test new employees for tobacco.

"We have wellness programs that encourage people to quit smoking," said Jennifer Yates, a spokeswoman for UPMC, with about 54,000 employees.

Wellness committee members in the Excela Health system discussed nicotine screening, but hospital officials opted to offer programs encouraging healthier behavior, said Laurie English, Excela's director of HR shared services.

It's hard to quantify whether nicotine use poses a greater health danger than, say, obesity, she said.

The hospital system has a smoking cessation coordinator who offers one-on-one coaching for employees and patients.

"We just try to address it from a wellness perspective," English said.

But demanding tobacco-free employees is a growing national trend, Metzger and other officials said.

"Non-nicotine hiring policies are legal in 20 states, including Pennsylvania," said Marcy Marshall, spokeswoman for Geisinger, which serves more than 2.6 million residents in central and northeastern Pennsylvania and has nearly 15,000 employees.

At least two other hospital systems in the state -- Susquehanna Health Systems in Williamsport and St. Luke's in the Lehigh Valley -- implemented similar policies, The Associated Press said.

"It is part of a national trend -- Ohio, Virginia, Arizona, multiple hospitals across the country," said Julie Kissinger, spokeswoman for the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania. "I would suspect we'd continue to see this grow across Pennsylvania."

Applicants who test positive for nicotine will not be offered employment with Geisinger. They can re-apply for jobs in six months if they are nicotene-free.

Marshall said the policy continues Geisinger's wellness program. The health system became a non-smoking property in 2007.

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