12 February 2011


TOBACCO-FREE HIRING. A recent NYTimes article highlights a growing trend among health care employers -- "More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs, and encourage healthier living .... This shift, from smoke-free to smoker-free workplaces, has prompted sharp debate, even among anti-tobacco groups, over whether the policies establish a troubling precedent of employers intruding into private lives to ban a habit that is legal.

".... About 1 in 5 Americans still smoke, and smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths. And employees who smoke cost, on average, $3391 more a year each for health care and lost productivity, according to Federal estimates.

" .... One concern voiced by groups like the National Workrights Institute is that such policies are a slippery slope -- that if they prove successful in driving down health care costs, employers might be emboldened to crack down on other behavior by their workers, like drinking alcohol, eating fast food, and participating in risky hobbies like motorcycle riding. The head of the Cleveland Clinic was both praised and criticized when he mused in an interview two years ago that, if it were legal, he would expand the hospital policy to refuse employment to obese people."

This is a complex issue, and I can understand the concerns of both sides. One third of Americans (including children) are clinically obese, and another third are medically overweight. Like smoking, overeating is not against the law. Yet both activities do have an impact on the cost of health care to all people. One can institute policies and pass laws (like those prohibiting smoking indoors) governing individual behavior which impacts the health of others (like second-hand smoke). But part of the reason for more militant policies is that "softer efforts -- like banning smoking on company grounds, offering cessation programs, and increasing health care premiums for smokers -- have not been powerful-enough incentives to quit."

The balance between an individual's right to choose vs. the good of society can be tricky. I invite your thoughts -- just click on "comments" at the bottom of this post.

SMART STUFF. The award-winning PBS science series NOVA has been on the air since 1974, and continues to deliver thought-provoking episodes each week to its many viewers. Earlier this week I watched the last in a four-part program on "Making Stuff", this one entitled "Making Stuff: Smarter". It was briliantly produced, and filled with stunning research into "materials that respond to their environments, and even learn, such as an airplane wing that changes its shape as it flies. Scientists are turning to nature in developing such 'smart' stuff. Sharkskin, for instance, has inspired a substance that, when sprayed in hospitals, could eliminate antibiotic-resistant bacteria. David Pogue visits a scientist who has even created a material that can render objects invisible. 'Smarter' concludes with a vision of the ultimate in life-like stuff, programmable material that could create a duplicate of a human being."

To view these and half a dozen more jaw-dropping segments, click on the link, then at the bottom of the black "Making Stuff: Smarter" square, click on Watch Making Stuff: Smarter. What follows is 53 minutes of sheer amazement.

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