Chicago Group Makes Case for Worksite Smoking Cessation Programs
The organization is one of 30 that received grants from the Chicago Tobacco Prevention Project, part of a program developing citywide policy strategies designed to decrease tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke. Among its goals is to reduce smoking prevalence by 10 percent among adults and 25 percent among youth over a two-year period. MBGH is the only organization focusing its efforts on employers and work sites.
"Years ago employers thought things like obesity and smoking and depression were all lifestyle issues and really didn't impact the employer," said Larry Boress, MBGH's president and CEO. "What we find is that we know all of these conditions are incredibly costly for the employer and not only impact direct medical costs but indirect costs."
Indirect costs include productivity and absenteeism. In addition to health-related costs are expenses many employers likely don't consider.
"The Environmental Protection Agency estimates in a smoke-free environment an employer can save $190 for every 1,000 square feet per year in lower cleaning and maintenance costs," Boress said. "One company in Los Angeles went smoke-free and saved $13,000 in reduced housekeeping in the first year."
Then there's the estimated $4 billion to $8 billion that could potentially be saved in building operations and maintenance costs if indoor smoking policies were adopted nationwide. Additionally, there are costs for accidents, property damage, and fires due to smoking.
"In these times of very difficult economics, why would you not want to find a way to reduce your costs?" Boress said. "It could cost you nothing, just having a smoke-free environment."
What to do.
Employers looking to reduce costs by implementing smoke-free workplaces should start by looking at their own state laws. For example, if a state law prohibits smoking in public places that may include work sites.
"In some cases states may give employers an option of having a smoke-free campus. I can decide my parking lot is smoke-free, so you'd have to smoke a quarter of a mile away if it's a big parking lot," Boress explained. "We find a smoke-free campus can reduce daily consumption of cigarettes. You have to start out with a goal."
One important facet of a smoke-free work site or any wellness program is making sure those at the top are on board.
"You've got to have senior management buy-in and visibility so everyone can see they walk the talk," Boress said. "At one company the head of HR didn't want to stop. It just undermines everything."
Boress said there are three key elements to a comprehensive smoke-free workplace program:
- Environmental. The work site should establish tobacco-free policies and have materials for employees with dependants and screening programs.
- Benefit coverage. This includes screenings, counseling, and medication -- both over-the-counter and prescription, "ideally, with no co-pays for any of these items," Boress said. "Even a minimal co-pay is often enough to prevent people from participating." He also says employers need not spend extra money for such programs. "There's also the realization that it's hard to quit," he said. "These are people who have an addiction. You've got to build that into the benefit policy." Boress says it typically takes someone six or seven attempts to quit.
- External resources. Information should be available on national or local lung and cancer organizations, for example, since they provide free materials to help people quit smoking.
In addition to targeting at-work smokers, Boress says companies can also protect and help their bottom lines by focusing on smoking outside of work. Smokers expose their families to secondhand smoke, which can impact the employer.
"So, an employer says, 'I can't tell my people what to do outside the work site,'" Boress said. "But if his dependants get sick, who pays the bill? The employer. So the employer really does have an interest in this."
Boress adds that employers probably have more influence than anyone else. "In wellness, who has the greatest opportunity to impact a person's life? It's not their doctor. They see their doctor once or twice a year for eight to 12 minutes. But they spend 1,000 to 2,000 hours a year at work," he said. "There's a tremendous opportunity to inform and motivate employees to put smoking on the top of the list."
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
February 28, 2011
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