The high cost of smoking Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

Cutting costs and increasing revenue are common goals for which companies strive. Downsizing and increased productivity are often used to achieve these goals. However, Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems, suggests employers begin to take notice of those employees who are costing them the most.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate the average cost of smoking as $3,383 per smoker per year. This breaks down to an estimated $1,760 in lost productivity and $1,623 in excess medical expenditures.

Smart Business asked Stephens how employees that smoke affect company costs and the options employers have to take action.

What are the health effects of smoking?

Some of the irreversible health effects are permanent changes in the structure or function of organ systems. Coronary artery disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States and stroke is No. 3. There is a strong link between smoking and both diseases. Smoking also leads to an increased risk of certain cancers, heart attacks, diabetes and ulcers. It reduces lung function and can develop into obstructed pulmonary disease.

There are significant benefits for a person who quits smoking. Within five to 10 years after quitting, a former smoker’s health risk is no different than that of a nonsmoker.

Why should employers worry about having employees who smoke?

Smokers cost companies money. Smoking can cause the development of costly medical conditions and often companies end up footing the bill. Smokers tend to see physicians more often and simple conditions, such as the common cold, often develop into more serious respiratory problems.

A smoker may need more time off work after having surgery because healing time is delayed, and smokers are more susceptible to incurring infections. Also, smokers have an overall lower survival rate after surgery.

Smokers are at a higher risk for a multitude of health problems as compared to nonsmokers that, in turn, result in higher medical costs, increased absenteeism and lost productivity.

How can smoking affect an employee’s work performance?

Smoke breaks are a major issue regarding a worker’s performance. If workers leave their desks to smoke, they are not working. In turn, there is a loss in productivity.

Absenteeism is a large piece of the burden in the cost to an employer. Companies are paying smokers for days they are absent from the job as well as for medical bills they are accruing.

A smoker’s level of concentration and ability to interact with others decreases as the level of nicotine in his or her system drops. The exact results of such a drop in nicotine primarily depend on the habit of the smoker and the frequency in which he or she smokes.

How can employers curb employee smoking or help employees quit?

A common trend for many employers is to become more involved in employees’ health. One way is to implement a no-smoking policy. This policy differs among companies. Employers may prohibit employees from smoking anywhere on company grounds. Some companies even enforce the rule that employees are not allowed to smoke in their cars in the parking lot.

Now, we see some executives offering incentives, such as leave time. They are also implementing certain programs that help their employees quit smoking. Employers are trying to get very aggressive about helping their employees improve their health by using incentives, such as cash and health insurance premium discounts, to encourage employees.

Employers should realize smoking is a tough habit to break and should be considerate of the challenge. Executives of companies could offer smokers help to quit, such as covering the cost of nicotine replacements or offering smoking cessation programs. Stopping smoking used to be a costly venture; however, today, there are more options at reasonable prices from which employers can choose. Employees who quit could save their employer around $3,000 a year. Medical costs will decrease as the employees’ overall health improves.

Are there any legal considerations regarding no-smoking policy programs of which executives need to be aware?

An employer must be cautious of the discrimination laws. For example, one must be careful when offering a smoker a monetary incentive to quit. This is considered a form of discrimination against a nonsmoker because a nonsmoker does not qualify for the incentive. If incentives are offered, they must be offered in a way that all employees are eligible.

The American Civil Liberties Union warns against the use of discrimination against lifestyle choices, such as smoking. It fears that the use of such discrimination might then go deeper into an individual’s lifestyle choices and violate privacy.

SALLY STEPHENS is the president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or at sally.stephens@spectrumhs.com.