Medical Examiner

U-Haul’s Anti-Nicotine Hiring Policy Is Draconian

And hypocritical!

U-Haul trailers in a parking lot
Smokers need not apply to rent out these vans.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

U-Haul wants to stop people who use nicotine, in any form, from working at U-Haul. Beginning in February, the company will screen applicants in the 21 states where it is legal to do so for use of cigarettes, vapes, patches, nicotine gum—anything that gets the stuff into your body. In addition to answering questions about nicotine use during the hiring process, “in states where testing is allowed, applicants must consent to submit to nicotine screening in the future to be considered,” notes a statement from the company.

This is draconian. The policy puts an awful lot of blame and responsibility on individuals not just for actively smoking (even on the weekends!) but also for having smoked at some point in the past and for now using nicotine-delivery methods as part of a plan to quit the stuff altogether. The company said that the move is part of U-Haul’s mission to “establish one of the healthiest corporate cultures in the U.S.” That’s like saying that you’re going to create a healthy workplace by declining to hire people who have cancer or a knee injury or who are seeking help for depression or who get colds a lot. Sure, your workforce may be healthier on balance, but only because you’ve booted people. (A spokesperson emphasized that the policy will not affect current employees.)

It’s a bad time to be managing a nicotine addiction, which is commonly regarded not as the health issue it is but a fun pastime people engage in obliviously or recklessly despite the health and social consequences. U-Haul’s move comes the same week that the Food and Drug Administration announced that a ban on most flavors of e-cigarette cartridges will go into effect in a month. About 14 percent of adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes, according to the CDC. Cutting them off from appealing risk-reduction tools that involve nicotine, and access to jobs with health care like those at U-Haul, is if anything going to make their health worse.

A platitudinous corporate statement tries and fails to frame this in a way that sounds appealing to people who might want to rent their moving trucks. “If we take care for our Team Members, they will take care of our customers,” Jessica Lopez, the company’s chief of staff, said in the statement. That means what, exactly? If we regulate the private habits of people who work for us, they will also regulate the private habits of people who are … trying to move their one-bedroom on the cheap?

What is obvious is that this ban isn’t really about cutting ties with harmful substances where it may affect profit. According to an August press release, residents of San Bernardino, California, can rent vans from a new local dealer, Smoke Break Tobacco. In July, it was a press release about a partnership with Oscar’s Smoke Shop, in Vancouver, British Columbia. That followed a press release announcing that U-Haul was partnering with the Smoke Shop in Decatur, Alabama; before that, a statement announced the availability of U-Hauls at Smokin’ Deals Smoke Shop in Visalia, California. More examples abound.

To U-Haul’s credit, the hiring policy statement does say that the company will provide “nicotine cessation assistance for current Team Members” as part of its wellness program. That could be genuinely helpful—if it’s done in a way that keeps employee participation and any data collected private, and doesn’t punish employees who fail the program. That’s a big if. A better way to increase employee “wellness” is to simply provide stellar health insurance and understand that your workers are human beings who will sometimes, for complicated reasons, make choices that are bad for them. (Biological clutches of addiction aside, having an occasional smoke should be their right). But that route would probably be expensive—at least compared with a headline-grabbing hiring policy that will almost certainly make some prospective employees’ lives worse.