Healthism and the Law of Employment Discrimination

65 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2012 Last revised: 28 Feb 2014

Date Written: April 9, 2013


Recently, several employers around the country announced they would no longer hire applicants who use nicotine, even off the clock. Just last year, one entity adopted a policy that it would not employ individuals classified as severely obese. Read together, nicotine and obesity bans can be understood as employer practices that intentionally screen out unhealthy individuals.

Yet should these employer practices constitute legally actionable discrimination? That question is the central inquiry of this Article. It begins by identifying those recently adopted policies as discrimination on the basis of employee health. It then analyzes this novel brand of employment discrimination by comparing employer bans on nicotine and obesity to the employment actions forbidden by the current federal statutes that cover health-related information, mainly the Rehabilitation and Americans with Disabilities Acts, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability and Affordable Care Acts. The Article distinguishes between discrimination on the basis of health-related traits and discrimination on the basis of health-related conduct. Because the existing laws are uniformly trait-based, prohibiting employment policies related to nicotine use and weight requires a different kind of antidiscrimination statute. The Article then surveys existing state legislation that limits an employer’s ability to discriminate on the basis of unhealthy behavior. It ends by proposing that well-structured legislation could reconcile the concerns surrounding this contentious issue, simultaneously shielding the interests of employers while offering workers protection.

Keywords: antidiscrimination, employment discrimination, health, privacy, autonomy, paternalism, nannyism, regulation, smoking, tobacco, obesity

Suggested Citation

Roberts, Jessica L., Healthism and the Law of Employment Discrimination (April 9, 2013). Iowa Law Review (2014), Available at SSRN: or

Jessica L. Roberts (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4800 Calhoun Road
Houston, TX 77204
United States

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