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Quitting Time: The Trend Toward Tobacco-Free Workplaces

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By: TJ Fjelseth, SPHR, Vice President of Human Resources at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania
September 21, 2012

Did you know that tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States?  According to the American Cancer Society, tobacco use is responsible for nearly one in five deaths – or about 443,000 premature deaths each year – and 49,900 non-smokers die as a result of exposure to second hand smoke.

The fact is that 70 percent of adult smokers say they want to quit, but without help fewer than 5 percent succeed. 

That’s where employers can step in, not only to help save lives but also to benefit from the cost savings of having employees who are tobacco-free.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the annual cost of tobacco use to an employer averages about $3,400 per smoker per year in higher medical costs and absenteeism, not to mention the negative health effects on non-smokers.

So, as an employer large or small, how can you help?  Consider creating a Tobacco-Free Workplace.  Policies and programs can be implemented in phases so the transition is not overwhelming.

  • First, establish a Tobacco-Free Worksite Policy.  Focus on the benefits of a safe, healthy workplace.  Organizations like the American Cancer Society provide samples of such policies on their website.
  • Offer your employees a comprehensive cessation benefit. You can increase long-term quitting success rates by offering 100 percent coverage for tobacco cessation medicines and proactive counseling.
  • Develop workplace-based support initiatives.  Providing onsite smoking cessation programs, support groups with counseling, and access to cessation medicines or other assistance can remove some of the barriers that prevent your employees from taking the steps needed to quit.
  • Finally, consider implementing Tobacco-Free Hiring Policies. Pennsylvania is one of 21 states that allows employers not to hire applicants whose urine tests positive for nicotine use.  An increasing number of employers, especially those in health-related fields, are taking this step to promote health and reduce medical costs.

At Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA), eliminating tobacco use is a key component in our efforts to promote a healthy, productive workforce and reward our employees for adopting healthy behaviors. 

As a leader in the health care industry, it’s important that we not just ‘talk the talk’ but also ‘walk the walk.’  Through a comprehensive employee wellness program, our employees and their spouses can earn significant wellness rewards for not using tobacco, and for other healthy behaviors like keeping their weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels in check.

The result is healthier employees who are more productive, take fewer sick days and help reduce insurance risk. For example, since 2005, the percentage of our employee population who are tobacco users has declined to 8 percent – less than half the normal incidence in our region.  And we predict those numbers will keep declining as more employees take advantage of our cessation benefit and on-site support programs.

We also follow the practice of not hiring tobacco users.  Just a few years ago, as an employer, our two highest medical claim costs were for cancer and heart disease. Now our first dollar is being spent on prevention – and that’s a trend we can live with.

Check with your health insurance provider to find out what types of tobacco cessation support they offer.  For example, if your health care coverage is provided through Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, you have full access to our Blue Health Solutions program, which offers tools and support in all areas of health management including tobacco cessation.

The path to a Tobacco-Free Workplace is often an evolutionary one that requires continuous education, awareness and engagement.  Nicotine addiction is powerful, and kicking the habit is difficult to do.  If you’re interested in improving the health of your employees – and the health of your company – start the journey today.

TJ Fjelseth, SPHR, is the Vice President of Human Resources at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania

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