Critics argue that bans on tobacco could easily be followed by prohibitions on alcohol, cheeseburgers or high-risk sports

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A growing number of employers throughout the nation are seeking to curb health costs by testing new job applicants for nicotine use.

Those who test positive will not be hired, and health insurance companies may charge a higher premium for current employees who acknowledge that they smoke or chew tobacco.

Although bans on hiring tobacco users are still relatively rare, dozens of firms — many, but not all, tied to health care or insurance — have imposed round-the-clock smoking restrictions on new hires and threatened staff who smoke with higher benefit costs at best and in some cases termination if they don’t quit. Most employers, even hospitals, ban or limit smoking at work and offer incentives for smokers to quit, but don’t refuse to hire people who use tobacco.

Employers as varied as Michigan-based benefits manager Weyco and Humana Inc. in Arizona to the Union Pacific Railroad and Alaska Airlines have followed the same path, although the policies have come under fire from civil libertarians and privacy advocates who contend companies are trying to ban workers’ use of a product in their private lives that is legal to use. About 20 percent of American adults are smokers, government surveys show.

Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania will begin nicotine tests for job applicants in February and also will implement higher insurance premiums in 2012.

“This is just the next step in creating a tobacco-free environment and it’s just an effort to focus on the well-being of our employees,” said Geisinger spokeswoman Marcy Marshall. All Geisinger facilities have been tobacco-free since 2007.

Critics argue that bans on tobacco could easily be followed by prohibitions on alcohol, cheeseburgers or high-risk sports off duty, all of which can also impact health costs. In fact, nearly 30 states have laws protecting smokers or users of “lawful products”from employer discrimination to at least some degree.

Geisinger is part of a national trend among hospitals and health systems, says Julie Kissinger, vice president for communications for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

Marshall said Geisinger’s new policy was a year in the making, and is modeled after one established at The Cleveland Clinic five years ago. She said some staff members understand why Geisinger is taking a more aggressive stance on tobacco use, and some even welcome the new policy. Others are worried. “I’m sure what’s going through their minds is, ‘How is this going to affect me down the line?'” Marshall said.

(Contact reporter Steve Twedt at stwedt@post-gazette.com. Lee Bowman of the Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this story.)