Fairfax County can legally force its employees to enroll in classes that help them stop smoking, the county's attorney said.

County Attorney David Bobzien offered that finding to the County Board of Supervisors, whose members wanted to know whether they could force county employees to stop smoking or refuse to hire someone who smokes as a way to reduce the county's soaring health care costs.

Bobzien concluded that the county can make employees attend smoking cessation classes "just as it may require its employees to take training on other topics." But it can't require them to pass the class and actually quit.

But supervisors can't refuse to hire someone who smokes because that's explicitly prohibited by state law, Bobzien said.

State law also prohibits the County Board from regulating other risky employee behaviors and prevents the board from banning smoking on all county property, Bobzien said.

Bobzien's response would allow the board to back the original request of Supervisor Gerry Hyland, D-Mount Vernon, to require anti-smoking courses. But most supervisors said they still don't support the measure.

"I would object to any kind of forced or required training to get people to stop smoking," said Board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova. "Smoking is a very unhealthy habit, but it is also an addiction that is hard to kick. A person must be ready and willing to change their behavior and can't be forced into it."

Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield, doesn't support Hyland's proposal either, but he does think the county has an opportunity to create an incentive-based health care program for employees that would reward those who live healthy. People who regularly have physicals, know their health numbers and take preventative steps to avoid health risks should all receive reduce insurance rates, he said.

County staff is expected to publicly present Bobzien's findings on Tuesday at the county's Personnel and Reorganization Committee meeting.

"I do support a more aggressive program to help people stop smoking," said Supervisor Jeff McKay, D-Lee. "But you can't force people to [take classes]. We need to provide financial rewards."