updated 4/23/2008 1:32:38 PM ET 2008-04-23T17:32:38

Smoking can be hazardous to your health, and it’s turning into a bad career move, too.

A Whirlpool Corp. factory in Evansville, Ind., has suspended 39 workers who signed insurance paperwork claiming they don’t use tobacco and then were seen smoking or chewing tobacco on company property. Now, some could be fired for lying, company spokeswoman Debby Castrale said.

As annual health care premiums rise more than 10 percent a year, many companies are trying to rein in costs by encouraging healthy living.

“I can’t think of a client of ours who has not shifted their focus to controlling the cost of their health care plan,” said Indianapolis benefits lawyer Mike Paton.

Some employers have developed wellness programs to motivate employees, while others ask employees to state on benefits forms whether they use tobacco.

Whirlpool, based in Benton Harbor, Mich., uses financial incentives to encourage U.S. workers and their dependents to abstain from tobacco use, spokeswoman Jill Saletta said. The specifics vary according to location.

In Evansville, the 1,500-employee factory charges tobacco users an extra $500 in annual health insurance premiums. The refrigerator factory has levied the extra premium since 1996, and it depends on employees to honestly fill out forms. It doesn’t mandate blood tests to detect nicotine or trail employees outside work, Castrale said.

Management suspended the 39 employees Friday after they were spotted using either chewing tobacco on company property or taking a drag in one of the factory’s dozen shelters for outdoor smoking, Castrale said.

“It’s definitely not something we wanted to do,” she said. “It’s unpleasant.”

The employees were suspended without pay, and they’ll present their case at “fact-finding” meetings before management determines their fate. Whirlpool had to recall some laid-off workers to keep production running due to the suspensions.

A 2007 national survey showed that 16 percent of all large employers — those with 20,000 or more employees — adjust health care premium contributions according to the worker’s smoking status, according to the human resources consulting firm Mercer.

The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act limits the changes an employer can make to a health premium because of a worker’s unhealthy habits. But it doesn’t set parameters on punishment if an employee lies about his or her habit, Paton said.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, which advocates for employee privacy, sees no problem with employers trying to curb smoking. But he worries that the trend of cracking down on employees’ unhealthy behavior is extending beyond tobacco use.

“We shouldn’t have to give employers complete control over our private life so they can save a few dollars on medical care,” he said.

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