Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How much control do you want Big Brother to have in your life?

Smoke 'em if you got 'em — at least for one more year if you're planning to apply for a job with Montgomery County in suburban Philadelphia.

The county's threat to implement a ban on hiring new employees who smoke has been reduced to ashes, like a half-smoked cigarette left to smolder in an ashtray.

County Commissioners' Chairman Jim Matthews, a former smoker, announced recently that he's going to allow the controversy to blow away — at least for now. "This does not mean we have shelved the idea," Matthews emphasized in an article published in the Nov. 26 edition of The Pottstown Mercury. "We just need more answers."

It's not clear what prompted Matthews to drop his missionary crusade to prevent chain smokers from getting their foot in the door of the county's personnel office. Perhaps Matthews' intention to run for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2006 has something to do with it. What politician in his right mind wants to kick off a campaign by alienating a large segment of the voters?

This debate started because Matthews, a Democrat turned Republican, was attempting to promote himself as a fiscal conservative. Montgomery County pays about $24 million for health care benefits for its 3,200 employees.

When Matthews first floated the smoking ban idea in March, he said the county's insurance company promised significant savings in premiums if the county didn’t hire smokers. (Current county employees can continue to smoke to their heart’s content, or until their hearts give out).

According to the Nov. 26 article by reporter Margaret Gibbons, some of the statistics provided to Matthews by the county’s insurance advisers, include the following:

• Smokers are 50 percent more likely to be hospitalized than nonsmokers.

• Insurance companies pay out an average of $300 more a year in claims for every smoker than claims from nonsmokers.

• Smokers are absent from work 50 percent more of the time than nonsmokers, with 80 million work days lost each year in the United States because of smoking-related illnesses.

There's nothing wrong with trying to save taxpayers some money, but is going after a personal habit — something a worker does away from the job — the right thing for government to do?

Jim Matthews is the younger brother of loudmouth liberal commentator Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," but for purposes of this column, it’s appropriate to refer to Jim Matthews as "Big Brother."

We all get the message that smoking is bad for you. But where do you draw the line in the government dictating personal habits? Drinking too much alcohol is bad for you. Will Big Brother Matthews go after alcoholics next? What about a recovering alcoholic? Can they ever get a job with Montgomery County?

Gambling is bad, and so is adultery. And let's not forget that heart disease is the biggest killer in the United States. What about gluttony? What if you want to eat a pound of bacon and a box of doughnuts for breakfast or a couple of Big Macs for lunch? Will Matthews install scales at the entrances of all county facilities and force workers to reveal their weight each morning?

How far will Big Brother go to enforce restrictions on personal habits? It's one thing to ban smoking in a public building or at public gatherings. But what if a worker smokes on his way to work or on a lunch break away from the job site? Will Big Brother Matthews hire spies to follow suspected smokers around? Will he install cameras in rest rooms? Is there such a thing as smoke-sniffing dogs? Will Big Brother Matthews hire K-9 units to patrol county property for wayward smokers? Release the hounds!

What is the ultimate goal of Big Brother Matthews in order to save on health care costs? Get rid of any worker who turns 40? Shades of "Soylent Green." Older workers tend to get sicker than younger ones. What about women? They have medical conditions that men don’t have to deal with. Is the goal to hire only men in their 20s to work for government?

What about people with allergies? Who wants to sit next to somebody who sneezes all the time? And we all know people who tend to get more colds than the average person. How do we go about weeding out the sickly from our employment rolls?

If Matthews' anti-smoking crusade is carried to the extreme, what's to stop government from genetic testing to single out people who may have a proclivity to certain diseases?

Matthews even came up with a couple of good reasons why the smoking ban is a bad idea.

He told Gibbons that a smoking ban could reduce the opportunity for the county to "hire the best and the brightest" as department heads or for the solicitor, district attorney or public defender offices. "Do we want to deny ourselves from hiring top people just because they smoke on their own time?" Matthews wondered.

Wrapping himself around the American flag, Matthews told Gibbons he didn't want to deny war veterans an opportunity to work for county government. "I am not about to turn down someone who has been sloshing around in Baghdad, dodging bullets and explosives on behalf of our country," said Matthews, adding he’s aware that there’s a "smoking culture in the military."

I'm not a smoker. Never have smoked and have no desire to start. And I don't enjoy breathing in second-hand smoke. I don't allow anyone to smoke in my house. Big Brother Matthews doesn't own the county administration building. There's something inherently wrong with government officials telling people how to live their lives on their own time and in their homes.

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