"WHO has taken a very public lead in the fight against tobacco use," spokesman Iain Simpson said. "As a matter of principle, WHO does not want to recruit smokers."
As of Dec. 1, all vacancy notices include a line stating that the U.N. health agency does not promote tobacco use or recruit smokers, Simpson said. Applicants are asked if they smoke or use other tobacco products, and if they answer "yes," the application process is terminated.
According to an internal WHO memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, there is no penalization of serving staff who use tobacco, but they cannot smoke on the agency's premises.
Designated outdoor areas where smoking is tolerated will remain until further notice.
"There is no intention to end or shorten the contracts of serving WHO staff in relation to their use of tobacco," the memo said.
The agency encourages staff who smoke or use tobacco to quit, and has several measures in place to help, the memo said.
"Tobacco use is the major preventable cause of death in the world, killing nearly 5 million people annually. Tobacco use is addictive," it said.
The ban on recruitment of smokers is legal under international law, which governs operations at WHO and other U.N. agencies, regardless of location, Simpson explained.
The ban, therefore, applies across all the agency's sites, including offices in New York, he said.
When asked whether WHO would soon stop hiring obese people or those drinking alcohol, spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said the agency was aware that its new rules "may seem discriminatory or even politically incorrect" to some. But she stressed that WHO needs to align its own employment practices with its principles.
"WHO tries to encourage people to try and lead a healthy life. There is safe sex, one can drink alcohol in a reasonable way and one can attempt eating in a balanced fashion," Chaib said. "But with tobacco, there is no middle ground, it is black and white and it kills half of those consuming it."
WHO chief Lee Jong-wook wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asking him to consider whether all United Nations agencies and offices should be made smoke-free areas, Chaib said.
At the moment, each U.N. agency has its own separate policy on smoking. Kiosks at the main United Nations building in Geneva continue to sell tobacco.