ANCHORAGE — Alaska’s biggest private employer has decided to stop hiring people who smoke tobacco.
As of Nov. 17, Providence Alaska Medical Center and its affiliates around the state will stop hiring tobacco users, the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.
At that time, Providence will begin testing prospective employees for nicotine along with illegal drugs. The hospital system doesn’t intend to police employees for tobacco use after they’ve been hired.
Providence is not the first big employer in Alaska to make the change. The Daily News said back in the mid-1980s, Alaska Airlines stopped hiring smokers in states where such bans are allowed, including Alaska.
Tammy Green, director of health management services for Providence Health & Services Alaska, said the move sends a clear message to the community.
“We believe that by doing this move, to where we are no longer going to hire tobacco users, that we are sending a very clear message into the community that we are not only the leaders in health care, but we’re really the leaders in health,” Green said.
Providence is latching onto a national trend among hospitals and health care facilities.
“If not us, then who?” said Green, a former state public health official who oversees Providence programs to improve employee health.
As a first step, Providence will weed out job candidates who smoke or otherwise use tobacco if they acknowledge that on their application. They can reapply once they’ve been tobacco-free for six months, Green said.
Current employees won’t have to quit. But Providence hopes the new practice might give some employees the incentive needed to stop smoking.
Providence looked at the experiences of organizations that already only hire people who are tobacco-free, including the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, which stopped hiring smokers in 2007.
Based on what it learned, Providence decided not to hire anyone who tests positive for nicotine, even if they say it’s from a nicotine patch or secondhand smoke. People on the patch may still be using tobacco, and the tests aren’t likely to be positive from someone only exposed to someone else’s smoke, Green said.
The Providence system employs about 4,300 people, mostly in Anchorage but also in other communities including Kodiak, Valdez and Seward.
Its campus is already tobacco-free, as are those of Alaska Regional Hospital and Alaska Native Medical Center. The campus ban on tobacco means employees can’t take a smoke break outside on the grounds or even in their own parked car.
“We know that tobacco use is the No. 1 leading cause of preventable death,” Green said.