Cleveland Clinic CEO: It’s appalling college campuses aren’t smoke-free

Cleveland Clinic stirred up lots of controversy after it announced a ban on hiring tobacco smokers in 2007.

Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove just stepped back into the fray, saying he believes U.S. college campuses should outlaw smoking.

“The fact that American universities are not smoke-free appalls me,” he said last week in a speech to the Harvard Business School Club of Cleveland.


Cosgrove said many adult smokers pick up the habit when they’re in college, so higher education facilities should follow the Clinic’s lead in modeling healthy behavior by discouraging the use of tobacco.

Cosgrove said he’s appealed to the leadership of universities both locally and nationally to institute on-campus smoking bans, with little to show for it. “I haven’t been able to budge university trustees and presidents on that at all,” he said.

Cosgrove made the comments after an audience member asked what higher education institutions could do to help improve health in the U.S.

He said there are four U.S. college campuses that ban smoking, but that number is hard to verify.

A Clinic spokesman said she was unable to get in touch with Cosgrove to inquire about the number.

A host of university associations – the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the National Association of Student Personnel Administration, the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers and the American Council on Education – either declined comment on the topic of smoke-free universities or didn’t return calls.

Other hospitals and companies have followed the Clinic in refusing to hire smokers, and it’s likely that more and more employers will jump on the trend as a means of controlling health costs, making the Clinic a pioneer of sorts in the practice.

“As a healthcare institution devoted to the health and well-being of our patients and employees, it is our responsibility to do something to help those who suffer from this terrible addiction,” Cosgrove says in a message on the Clinic’s website.

But backlash predictably has been just as strong. An Ohio state representative two years ago introduced a bill that would ban employers from refusing to hire smokers, but the bill never made it to a vote.

The Clinic has also been a target of the Tobacco Analysis blog, which is maintained by Michael Siegel, a Boston University public health professor. Siegel titled one recent post “Cleveland Clinic won’t hire smokers, but has no problem hiring suspected white collar criminals.”

A 2009 report published in the journal Tobacco Control said hiring bans on smokers may bring unintended consequences and could do more harm than good, the Los Angeles Times reported. As more companies adopt nicotine-free hiring policies, it could make smokers nearly unemployable, cause them to lose their health insurance and negatively affect their health and that of their families, the report’s authors said.

[Photo from flickr user LawPrieR]