Tobacco bans could block the way to badges
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER and ALEX LEARY
Published January 25, 2005
TAMPA - Smokers, put down that nicotine stick and take note: If you want to be a cop in Tampa Bay, you might want to kick the habit.
Smokers already are shunned from restaurants, malls and movie theaters. Now the sheriffs in Hillsborough and Pasco counties say they will ban cigarettes and other tobacco products from the mouths and lungs of their forces.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee and Pasco County Sheriff Bob White won't hire people who are smokers, cigar users or tobacco chewers, even if they only indulge when off-duty. Sworn deputies already on the force will be encouraged to toss their Marlboros and Camels whenever on duty and in public.
In Pasco, the Sheriff's Office will only hire applicants who do not smoke or use any tobacco products "in any way, either on or off duty" and have not used tobacco in the previous six months. The policy, which took effect last week, won't apply to current employees, but spokesman Doug Tobin said, "we believe all employees could benefit by participating."
The two agencies are the latest to embrace a movement seen in law enforcement and emergency rescue agencies across the country, from Pinellas County to Boca Raton to Seattle.
The primary goal of the Pasco ban, Tobin said, is to promote good health. It also could lead to lower health insurance costs for the agency, which has about 1,100 full- and part-time employees.
Hillsborough's sheriff says the smoking ban is part of an overall emphasis on "wellness" that he laid out last week in a plan for his first 180 days in office.
"I'm not going to be out smoke-testing them or anything," said Gee, a nonsmoker who took office earlier this month. "But we want them to set a good example for people who may look up to them as role models."
He plans to set up a wellness program that emphasizes the need for his 3,000 employees to eat better and exercise more.
Fitness standards for new hires will be higher, and the annual fitness evaluation for deputies likely will become more challenging as well, he said.
The ban on hiring smokers takes effect immediately, with the rest to follow in the months to come.
Like the Pasco sheriff, Gee sees a financial benefit for the Sheriff's Office in banning tobacco use. If there are fewer nicotine addicts, he said, it's likely the Sheriff's Office won't have to pay as much for employees' medical costs. "So we're trying to have a healthier work force," he said.
Gee said he is still ironing out the provisions of the tobacco ban. For example, it's not clear what - if any - penalty there will be for violating it.
In some departments, violations can lead to dismissal. A seven-year veteran of the Fall River, Mass., Police Department was fired in 2003 after an anonymous letter disclosed the officer was smoking off-duty at a party. The officer had signed a contract pledging not to use tobacco, according to news reports.
In Pasco, applicants will have to sign an agreement stating they do not now and will not in the future use tobacco, Tobin said.
While civil liberties advocates are wary of these smoking bans, Hillsborough and Pasco are not alone in their no-smoking stance.
State law, for example, prevents firefighters from smoking.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has banned smokers from its pool of new hires since last fall. Also, prospective deputies undergo polygraph questioning about smoking and are tested for nicotine during a physical. If an applicant fails, he or she must wait six months before seeking employment again, said sheriff's spokesman Mac McMullen.
"I'm not going to be out smoke-testing them or anything. But we want them to set a good example for people who may look up to them as role models."
--DAVID GEE, Hillsborough County sheriff
The Clearwater Police Department has had a ban on hiring smokers since 1988.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 upheld the city of North Miami's policy barring the hiring of job candidates who smoked within the year before they applied.
In 2001, Temple Terrace adopted a city policy banning the hiring of smokers, including people who smoke only away from their jobs. Three years later, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Temple Terrace's policy was legally sound.
Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, said that while there is legal precedent for such tobacco restrictions, enforcing them puts agencies at risk of violating employees' privacy.
"We're talking about what people do on their own time, in their own back yards," Simon said. "On some days, people might like to pig out on their couch watching football with a quart of ice cream. That's unhealthy, too, but people have a right to do that.
"At some point, we have to draw the line between what is an employer's business and what isn't."
When he took office last year, Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue announced that fitness would be a priority. He required every employee with a badge to pass a physical agility test within a month of his arrival.
But the Tampa Police Department has no restrictions on smoking, said spokesman Joe Durkin.
Neither does the St. Petersburg Police Department when it comes to hiring officers, according to spokesman Bill Proffitt.
Gee stressed that he doesn't want to become the fitness cop - telling his employees what to eat or how much time to spend at the gym. He isn't exempting himself from the new fitness standards.
"I started running again because I knew I was going to ask other people to get in shape," he said.
"I'm just trying to be realistic."
--Staff researchers Caryn Baird, Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or email@example.com
[Last modified January 25, 2005, 01:21:08]
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