Two years ago, the Cleveland Clinic stopped hiring smokers. It was one part of a "wellness initiative" that has won the renowned hospital — which President Obama recently visited — some very nice publicity. The clinic has a farmers' market on its main campus and has offered smoking-cessation classes for the surrounding community. Refusing to hire smokers may be more hard-nosed than the other parts of the program. But given the social marginalization of smoking, the policy is hardly shocking. All in all, the wellness initiative seems to be a feel-good story.
Which is why it is so striking to talk to Delos M. Cosgrove, the heart surgeon who is the clinic's chief executive, about the initiative. Cosgrove says that if it were up to him, if there weren't legal issues, he would not only stop hiring smokers. He would also stop hiring obese people. When he mentioned this to me during a recent phone conversation, I told him that I thought many people might consider it unfair. He was unapologetic.
"Why is it unfair?" he asked. "Has anyone ever shown the law of conservation of matter doesn't apply?" People's weight is a reflection of how much they eat and how active they are. The country has grown fat because it's consuming more calories and burning fewer. Our national weight problem brings huge costs, both medical and economic. Yet our anti-obesity efforts have none of the urgency of our antismoking efforts. "We should declare obesity a disease and say we're going to help you get over it," Cosgrove said.