Victor Margolin

In the State of Michigan and almost twenty other states, it is legal to fire employees for smoking and even to penalize them financially if their insured spouses smoke or chew tobacco. The Weyco Company, a subsidiary of Meritain Health Michigan, conducts random testing on employees every three months to see if they are smoking and dismisses those who fail the test twice. Meanwhile Clarion Health, a company in Indianapolis, has warned its employees that in 2009 it will begin charging them for high cholesterol, blood pressure, and other health indicators that exceed supposed norms. This is just the beginning of a move within the corporate sector to compel employees to shape up physically so that they do not place excessive burdens on company health plans. Well, none of this has anything to do with job performance and curiously appears to fall outside the discrimination laws in approximately twenty states.

Such intrusive policies smack of the tactics George Orwell wrote about in 1984. His vision was predicated on the omniscience of the state and its ability to identify and punish those citizens who did not conform to its mandates. The violation of personal privacy is part and parcel of the dystopian vision and it is becoming more prevalent in the United States, where the government has unleashed a series of laws and rulings that allow the FBI and other interested parties to monitor phone calls, e-mails, and other forms of public communication. Although the privacy of writing, reading, and talking is well codified in the literature on rights, the state of one’s cholesterol is not. Imagine if such rulings about smoking and cholesterol had been in place during the worst years of Communist rule in the Soviet Union. Not only dissident writers and readers, clearly outsiders in the system, would have been jailed but most of the overweight heavy-smoking and heavy-drinking members of the Politburo would have been thrown into Lubyanka Prison and replaced with trim Ken-like apparatchiks who preferred tonic water to vodka.

The paradox of fining and firing employees for smoking and overeating is that it goes against the grain of everything the American economy stands for. Thousands of jobs depend on manufacturing and peddling cigarettes and junk food. Will employees at the Lorillard Tobacco Company be fired for smoking or McDonalds’ employees be canned for consuming the company’s cholesterol- laden burgers? The tobacco industry and fast food producers should form a lobby to prevent companies like Weyco and Clarion Health from firing or penalizing employees who smoke or overeat. Big tobacco and the fast food folks are pretty good at political gamesmanship and it would be a delicious irony to see them go to bat for employee rights, especially in states like Michigan, where the Chamber of Commerce champions the entitlement of the state’s companies to invade the privacy of their employees.

Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a founding editor of DesignIssues.