When General Dynamics Electric Boat sent a letter from the company's president to each of its employees last August announcing the establishment of the company's tobacco-free workplace policy and the proposed start date, one employee sent the company's leaders a succinct response via e-mail.
It read, "Thank you. You've just established my retirement date." Though a bit startling, the message was the only negative response among the many received from employees, according to Robert Nardone, the Groton, Conn.-based company's vice president of human resources. Most of the employee feedback was overwhelmingly positive, says Nardone, even the responses from employees who smoked. "Some even said 'Thank you. This is going to help me do what I know I need to do anyway,' " he says.
Despite the recognition of serious health consequences linked to cigarette smoking, more than 45 million adults in the United States still use tobacco, according to Seattle-based Free and Clear, a provider of coaching-based treatment services for health plans and employers.
Although the risks of using tobacco are widely known, nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke are also at serious risk: Among the more than 400,000 tobacco-related deaths in the United States each year, approximately 53,000 are the result of secondhand- smoke exposure, according to Berkeley, Calif.-based Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.
The Society of Actuaries has determined that secondhand smoke costs the U.S. economy about $10 billion a year--$5 billion in estimated medical costs associated with exposure to secondhand smoke and an additional $4.6 billion in lost wages.
If all workplaces were to implement 100 percent smoke-free workplaces, the reduction in heart-attack rates due to exposure to secondhand smoke would save the United States $49 million in direct medical savings within the first year alone, according to the July 1, 2004 issue of the American Journal of Medicine. Over subsequent years, the savings would only increase.
Companies that have already established tobacco-free campuses have found that their policies have, in general, been well received and many employees see them as an impetus to quit using tobacco altogether. A few companies are taking things a step further and banning employees from using tobacco at all--a practice that's aroused some controversy. Regardless of the way a company plans to launch an anti-tobacco campaign, HR leaders caution that the new policies should be rolled out carefully and are best implemented as part of an overall wellness campaign.
Electric Boat's campaign to achieve tobacco-free workplaces at its Groton facility, which includes 7,000 employees, and its Quonset Point, R.I., facility, with 2,000 employees, had different start dates: The policy took effect at Quonset Point on March 1, 2007, while implementation at the Groton facility is set for July 1, 2007. The ban applies to the use of any tobacco products, including chewing tobacco and snuff, on company property.
The staggered implementations allow the company additional time to anticipate potential difficulties that might arise at the Groton location, says Nardone. The Groton workforce population, in addition to being twice as large as that at Quonset Point, includes two unionized groups. "We have to work with the unions to come up with a policy that both the company and the union can support," says Nardone.
Although the unions are supportive of the company's wellness goals, they question whether a mandated policy is the best answer, he says.
The letter sent to employees from EB President John P. Casey expressed the company's concern for their personal health and well-being. He introduced the tobacco-free initiative as a "critical component" in achieving and maintaining employee health. Additionally, he acknowledged the "significant challenge this policy represents for employees who use tobacco."
Casey offered the services and support of EB's medical staff and wellness team members to help employees comply with the new policy. EB agreed to provide smoking-cessation programs and to share the cost of over-the-counter and prescription medicines such as nicotine patches and gum.
The company also offered to provide experts who specialize in quitting smoking to train employees who want to help co-workers quit. "We're trying to be sensitive to [the smokers'] situation because we know it's not an easy thing to kick," says Nardone. "We're doing it in a way that's manageable for them."
Extrapolating data from statewide surveys, the company knew that approximately 25 percent to 28 percent of its employees were smokers, says Nardone--which meant at least 72 percent of them didn't smoke. "We're concerned about their rights, as well," he says.
EB executives view the introduction of the smoke-free workplace as a part of its holistic approach to employee health, which includes its Building Better Health initiative, a program launched in 2001 that offers employees incentives for undergoing physicals and participating in free screenings for cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. "I see this as a logical extension of the integrated health-management program," says Medical Director Dr. Robert P. Hurley. "Clearly, the greatest impact you can have on improving health is smoking cessation."
While he admits that the percentage of individuals who smoke may be "only modestly impacted" by the smoking ban, it will nonetheless cut back significantly on the number of cigarettes employees smoke per day. "We believe this is one of the most important health and wellness programs this company can provide workers."
"FIFTH VITAL SIGN"
When it comes to enforcing the new policy, Hurley says, the most important message to impart to employees is "if you slip, we don't consider it a failure." Evidence-based medicine suggests the greatest health interaction involves a periodic questioning or interview between a smoker and clinical provider, he says. "The focus here is not to punish; it is to support."
EB has instituted smoking as the "fifth vital sign." If smokers visit one of the company's two on-site medical clinics for any sort of evaluation, they're asked about their smoking status, with the hope that the discussion will segue into the impact smoking has on one's health.
Employee noncompliance with the smoke-free workplace policy is an important consideration, Nardone says. EB does not conduct employee testing or actively monitor employees to detect policy abuse. But management knows it will happen.
"We're trying to avoid the term 'punishment,' " says Nardone. At EB, the preferred term is "discipline." Yet, although the company is intent on offering support, it recognizes that enforcement may be necessary at times. Enforcement involves a four-step process, with the first three steps consisting of measures designed to offer help, such as referral to the medical director for counseling.
"The fourth step is the ultimate: If you can't comply, then you can't work here," says Nardone.
At Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes, which has 4,000 employees, the company's campuswide smoke-free policy has been in place since the early 1990s. The policy is bolstered by an incentive-based program called "Count Your Way to Health," in which employees accrue numbers for practicing healthy behaviors such as enrolling in smoking-cessation programs.
By accruing enough numbers, employees can earn up to $225 to be applied to benefits selections, says Dr. Brent Pawlecki, the company's associate medical director. It's essential to keep the message positive and supportive, he says, considering that the average smoker undergoes several attempts before successfully quitting.
Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has taken a much firmer approach to smoking. When the Marysville, Ohio-based lawn-care company established its smoke-free campus in 2004 (which banned smoking inside company buildings, on company grounds and in company-owned vehicles), its workforce of more than 5,300 in 45 states largely welcomed the policy, according to Jim King, vice president of corporate communications. "We let people know well in advance," he says.
Following successful implementation of the policy, the lawn-care company then moved in 2006 to a completely smoke-free workforce, King says.
"We don't hire or retain [smokers] in states where the law allows us to do that," he says. "We reserve the right to terminate [for noncompliance] in the 20 states where we're allowed to do that." That means if employees smoke, even at home, they could lose their jobs. The company offers smoking-cessation programs and other resources to employees to help them quit smoking. "We didn't tell people, 'Hey, we're going to do this and you're on your own,' " King says.
Today, Scotts requires nicotine screening for all new hires and randomly tests the existing workforce for nicotine. The company's Web site clearly states the policy with regard to the smoke-free workforce, while its online employment application includes a question asking applicants whether they are nicotine users.
"A job offer, at every level, is contingent upon a criminal background check, drug screen and nicotine screen," King says. "We're very up-front about it."
Although King says "no existing employees" have been fired as a result of the policy, one of the company's new hires (who hadn't yet completed his new-employee probationary period) was terminated last fall when his drug test yielded positive results for nicotine. The former employee has since brought a civil rights and privacy violation lawsuit against Scotts.
Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., fears that companies are venturing into dangerous territory by establishing such policies. "If employers start controlling one aspect of employee conduct, what else is there to control?" he asks.
For its part, the company insists that its goal is to improve workers' health, not fire people.
"We've had a tremendous amount of success in terms of people who have quit smoking or are in the process of quitting," he says, adding that most employees applaud the company's new initiative. "Our goal is not to take any action against anybody."He adds that Scotts implemented the policy in conjunction with its corporate wellness program.
In fact, Scott's boasts a new corporate wellness center, complete with state-of-the-art fitness center, medical clinic and pharmacy. Approximately 70 percent of the company's employees participate in its wellness programs, says King, adding that such programs would be undermined if employees continued to smoke. "We can't make the investment in wellness initiatives and continue to underwrite the risks of smoking," he says.
Transitioning to a tobacco-free campus fits perfectly in organizations already committed to the concept of employee wellness. The smoke-free policy is "just one component of our overall dedication to creating a culture where health is just part of our everyday work environment," says Marcy Zauha, director of health and safety at Omaha-based Union Pacific. That company, which has 50,000 employees, adopted its "no smoking on company property" rule in July of 2005.
"A corporate wellness program is vital to a smoke-free campus," says Zauha. Such a program is essential to employees' recognition of the importance the company places on health and the commitment of the company to a healthy workforce. That recognition goes a long way in motivating employees to embrace programs and changes, she says.
"Employees who are smokers and are going to be restricted from [smoking] should be given ample time as well as the tools necessary to help them change their behaviors so that they can be compliant with the new policy," Zauha says.
BARBARA WORTHINGTON lives in Pennsylvania.
March 1, 2008
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