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Eurogates

VU professor Elies Steygers talks about smokers’ rights

25 September 2006, 02:28

VU professor Elies Steygers talks about smokers’ rights in Trouw. Job applicants who smoke needn’t worry about missing out on career opportunities as a result.

VU professor Elies Steygers talks about smokers’ rights in Trouw. Job applicants who smoke needn’t worry about missing out on career opportunities as a result. The European Commission recently announced that employers have the right to refuse smokers, but in practice the situation is not that straightforward.

”It’s simply not feasible,” argues Elies Steygers, Professor of European Administrative Law at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Lawyers who specialize in employment law reckon that an employer has no control over what his personnel do or don’t do in their own time.

Vladimir Spidla, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, recently ruled that an Irish company was within its rights to state in a job advertisement that smokers need not apply. Smokers are more likely to be ill and bother their colleagues by smelling of smoke. As Mr Spidla sees it, smoking is not covered by European anti-discrimination law, so refusing to employ smokers is permissible.

Yet Stefan Sagel, a lawyer based in The Hague, believes that job applicants turned down for smoking in their own time have a good chance of winning their case in court. “If someone says during a job interview that they intend to smoke at work, you have the right to refuse them. But where do you draw the line? Smoking is bad for your health, but there are health risks attached to parachute jumping as well.”

John Roth from Sap in Amersfoort, the first Dutch legal firm to take the tobacco industry to court on behalf of a sick smoker, thinks employers are in a position to make far-reaching demands. “But what an employee does at home is his own business. That’s something in which an employer should have no say whatsoever.”

It is an issue that seems to unite friend and foe. Ton Wutz, from smokers’ rights organization Rokersbelangen, dismisses the European Commissioner’s statement as “a ridiculous attempt to test the water”. Even a spokesman for Stivoro, an organization campaigning for the drastic reduction of smoking in the Netherlands, slams the ruling as discriminatory.

As Professor Elies Steygers sees it, Brussels does not call the shots on this matter. “Besides, by penalizing people for smoking in their own time, you are infringing their right to privacy.”

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