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Michigan Lawmaker Defends Workers' Right to Smoke Off the Job

A state senator in Michigan has taken up the cause of four workers who were fired for smoking -- not on the job, but in the privacy of their own homes.

In response to the firings, Senator Virg Bernero says he will introduce legislation in Michigan that would protect workers' privacy rights. "I want to make a law that says your private life is your private life," Senator Bernero told NBC's Today show, "that you have the right to engage in legal activities outside the workplace that do not conflict with your job, and the company cannot do anything about that."

His proposal would protect workers like Anita Epolito. She was one of the four people recently fired from Weyco, a private medical benefits company in Michigan, for refusing to quit smoking.

"I don't smoke...I don't encourage it at all," Senator Bernero said. "The question is, what is fair in America?"

The lawmaker told NBC he was overweight: "Is there an employer out there who would find that objectionable?" he asked. "Where do you draw the line?"

In November of 2003, Weyco instituted a policy requiring its employees to quit smoking by January first of this year. The company's website states: "Any private Michigan business organization has the right to protect itself from the enormous financial damage that tobacco users inflict upon society by destroying their own health."

Weyco workers were provided with support services to help them quit the nicotine habit, including smoking-cessation classes, medication, even appointments with acupuncturists. According to the company's website, "about a dozen" employees stopped using tobacco by the January 1, 2005 deadline, when mandatory testing for nicotine began.

Anita Epolito is one of four who refused to quit smoking. "I didn't think it was a smoking issue," she told NBC. "I felt the moment it was announced to me, it was a privacy issue."

Michigan Senator Virg Bernero agrees that it is a privacy issue. But even if the bill he plans to introduce becomes law, nothing in it would require Weyco to rehire Ms. Epolito and her colleagues. The legislation would, however, protect them and other tobacco-using workers from being targeted by some other company in the future. 29 states have similar laws already in place to protect smokers.