How employers can help their employees quit smoking Featured

7:02pm EDT November 30, 2011
How employers can help their employees quit smoking

Did you know that tobacco use in the United States costs an estimated $197 billion a year in lost productivity and health care costs? Add to that second-hand smoke, which costs an additional $10 billion in losses. Tobacco use contributes to one of every five deaths, and smokers die an average of 13 years earlier than nonsmokers.

“While it’s not easy to quit, it is possible to do so. And employers can help,” says Julie Sich, health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc.

“Both the employer and employee can benefit when the employer helps the employee who wants to quit,” says Sich. “Employees who quit can significantly improve their health and quality of life. Employers benefit by spending less on tobacco-related illnesses and gaining productivity in the work place.”

Smart Business spoke with Sich about how to provide the tools to help your employees quit smoking.

Why should employers be concerned about employees who smoke?

Worldwide, an estimated five million people will die this year as a result of smoking. In the U.S., tobacco use is responsible for an estimated one in five deaths, or about 443,000 deaths per year. This creates a huge impact on businesses and the health care system.

In addition, for every death that results from smoking, an additional 20 people suffer from at least one serious illness related to smoking, including smoking bronchitis, heart disease, stroke, cancer and lung disease. People who suffer from those diseases are not as productive and can cause substantial increases in health insurance premiums.

With an estimated 46.6 million smokers in the U.S. — 20.6 percent of the adult population — this can have a significant impact on the productivity of the country’s employers.

How do employees who smoke cost their employers money?

The first way smokers cost employers more money is obviously an increased use of health care, which can drive up premiums, but there are other ways that may not be as obvious. For example, if employees are taking four 10-minute smoking breaks each day, they are working one full month less each year than employees who aren’t taking comparable breaks. Each employee who smokes costs an employer an average of $1,897 per year in lost productivity as a result of smoking breaks and by being absent an average of two days more per year than their nonsmoking counterparts. In addition, workers’ compensation costs for nonsmokers average $176, while costs for smokers are more than 12 times that, at $2,189.

How can employers encourage employees to quit?

Many employees already want to quit smoking but don’t know where to turn. Studies show that approximately 70 percent of smokers want to quit, and, in 2008, about 45 percent of smokers attempted to do so. With that in mind, it may be easier than employers think to help people quit, as the majority of smokers already have the desire to stop.

Begin by surveying employees to identify the amount of interest in quitting, and find out what resources are available to help you decide on the approach you wish to take. Some employers choose to minimize their involvement and simply steer employees to information or community programs that could help. Others may choose to make some smoking cessation resources available themselves.

Finally, companies may choose to offer smoking cessation benefits such as therapy and individual and group counseling. When it comes to smoking cessation, one size does not fit all. People respond differently to different methods, and a program that offers both a counseling and coaching component can help a smoker develop a cessation strategy that works best for that individual.

Pairing counseling with nicotine replacement therapies and medications is even more effective, and employers who provide low- or no-cost access to medication can greatly increase their employees’ rate of success.

By providing support to help smokers quit, employers send the message that they care about their employees and want them to be healthy. Employees should also be reassured that the employer has their best interests at heart and is not trying to stigmatize them by encouraging them to quit.

How can employers provide incentives for employees to quit?

Small incentives can be effective in helping employees to quit. For example, those who succeed — or even those who complete a program but fail to quit — can be rewarded with lower health insurance and/or life insurance premiums or cash in a flexible spending account to pay for medication to aid in quitting. Also, employers can pair quitting smoking with other health and wellness programs, making it just one part of a healthy lifestyle.

Employers should encourage a supportive workplace. If smokers are stigmatized, they are less likely to succeed. Encourage your nonsmoking employees to offer support to those who are trying to quit.

Can banning smoking on company property be an effective step to helping employees quit?

Making it more difficult for employees to smoke during the workday may provide an incentive for some, although not all, employees to quit. However, banning smoking on your property can have additional benefits, including improved morale among nonsmokers, reduced liability from lawsuits for exposure to second-hand smoke, better air quality around the building, a better image for visitors and lower building maintenance fees.

Breaking an addiction to nicotine is not easy, but employers are in a great position to encourage and help their employees quit. Research shows that paying to help an employee quit smoking provides a great return on investment in lower health care costs, lower workers’ comp costs, increased productivity and fewer days of missed work.

Julie Sich is health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc. Reach her at (330) 996-8779 or sichj@summacare.com.