They're not blowing smoke Featured

10:10am EDT July 22, 2002

They're not blowing smoke

How to institute a smokeless workplace policy

By Joan Slattery Wall

Central Benefits Chairman and CEO John B. Reinhardt Jr. distinctly remembers the day he threw his cigarettes in the trash can and-cold turkey-quit his two- to three-pack-a-day Winston habit.

It was, in fact, shortly after Oct. 13, 1986, the day Central Benefits enacted a smokeless workplace policy-one including the tenet that the company would never again hire anyone who uses tobacco products. To further reinforce the policy, the company in 1990 decided that all potential hires would be urine-tested for nicotine.

Central Benefits sees advantages, including decreased costs, related to the policy. Average absenteeism hours are fewer for the company's nonsmoking employees than smokers, who were grandfathered in, says Human Resources Manager Bruce A. Schwartz. He adds that hospital admissions for respiratory-related illness are lower among Central Benefits employees than in the general Central Ohio community.

Even though employees who used tobacco products at the time of the policy decision-nearly all of whom were smokers-were not forced to quit, Reinhardt had a feeling he ought to set the pace.

"I was in the cessation program with many of them," he says of his employees, noting that although many of them quit or cut back tremendously, some-including him-haven't entirely dropped their tobacco habits. Although he's never had even a puff of a cigarette since he quit, Reinhardt does enjoy the occasional cigar away from the office.

The impetus behind the program was a sign of the times, Reinhardt says, noting that in the early '80s employers were designating smoking areas of their buildings. Since insurance is Central Benefits' line of business, executives there decided to take a more radical, proactive role.

"We really just took the step and said, 'We're going to make this a smoke-free environment,' " Reinhardt says. "Twelve years ago, that wasn't in vogue. To take another step of not hiring a smoker and actually testing for it was a really bold step."

He's glad he took it.

Once the smoke cleared...

Now that Central Benefits' smokeless workplace policy has been in effect for nearly 12 years, the company estimates that, to its knowledge, less than 10 percent of its nearly 400 associates use tobacco products, compared to approximately 30 percent in 1986.

Those figures have translated into lower costs.

For example, a study of comparably sized companies insured by Central Benefits showed that Central Benefits has 17 percent fewer hospital admissions for respiratory illness, and costs are 27 percent lower based on shorter hospital stays, says Schwartz.

Absenteeism also is dwindling at Central Benefits. Nationally, on average, 2.4 percent of work hours are utilized as sick-time benefits, Schwartz says. That is about 50 hours per year per employee.

"We run about 36 hours per year," he says. "So our group is healthier, I believe."

He estimates that, based on salary and benefits, a smoker costs the company an additional $335 per year just in lost time.

"That's only the tip of the iceberg," Schwartz adds. "The lost time is also then going down to the [loading] dock three to four times a day for 15 minutes [to smoke]." This is the only area where those grandfathered into the policy are still permitted to exercise their habit.

The smoke screen

Central Benefits wastes no time in screening potential employees to reject tobacco users. Ads for openings at the company state, "We hire drug and tobacco free applicants only."

For those who then choose to apply, department managers reaffirm that the candidate has read point No. 3 of the application: "I certify that I do not smoke or use any tobacco products."

Schwartz recalls trying to hire a qualified candidate for his own department.

"That person came to me and said, 'I smoke.' I said, 'Interview's over.' We're serious about it."

So serious, in fact, that once a candidate successfully completes a series of interviews, he or she is sent to the Industrial Medicine Clinic at Columbus Community Hospital for a drug and nicotine test. The test costs Central Benefits $30.75. Less than 10 percent of the candidates test positive for nicotine, Schwartz says, but those who do are rejected.

Clearing the air

Any Central Benefits employees hired after the policy took effect will be fired immediately if they are caught smoking anywhere-even if a supervisor sees them smoking outside of work hours-on the premise that they lied on their application. Employees who were grandfathered in also face disciplinary action if they smoke anywhere on company premises except the loading dock. A first offense generates a written warning, a second offense results in three days off without pay, and the third offense brings termination.

No one has been fired on those grounds, Schwartz says, and to his knowledge no employee has challenged the Central Benefits policy.

"There is no legislation for making those that use nicotine a protected class," Schwartz says. "So you can selectively hire people."

He cautions that the policy has to be applied across the board, however.

"You can't say this person could be so valuable to this company, we'll forgive this. You can't say we'll do it for exempt and not for non-exempt. Then it becomes discriminatory," he says. Central Benefits extends the policy to hourly and part-time employees, too.

To help facilitate a smokeless workplace, Central Benefits offered free smoking-cessation programs to employees and spouses.

"I think it's in good conscience that you'd have to offer that to your associates before you just close the door on them," Reinhardt says.

He admits that the policy of not hiring tobacco users might not work everywhere, and the results his company has seen cannot be generalized.

"The demographics are such that I think plenty of studies would show that the [Central Benefits] population doesn't tend to smoke maybe as much," he says. "If you were in an industry ... where individuals are more accustomed to smoking, trying to implement this kind of a policy would not be very smart."

Looking back to the days when Central Benefits had a smoking environment is almost surrealistic, Reinhardt says.

"I recall having meetings in our boardroom-it's a room about 20 by 30-and in that room would be 20 people, 15 of whom were all hospital administrators. And I would say, very conservatively, that at least 15 out of the 20 had a lit cigarette the whole time the meeting was going on in that room," he says. "When you think about it, it was a terrible environment."

How to do it

For free information about setting up a smoke-free workplace policy, contact:

  • Bob Jones, health programs coordinator, Columbus Health Department, 645-7498. He provides consultations and printed information.

  • Helen Schinagl, project director, Tobacco-free Collaborative, 240-7420. She provides model policies and refers employers to health agencies in the area that offer smoking-cessation programs.

  • Health educator, Franklin County Board of Health, 462-3160. The health educator provides sample policies and assistance in writing or establishing a smoke-free workplace policy.