Quitting Time: The Trend Toward Tobacco-Free Workplaces: Guest Column: By Q. Thomas Novinger, MD
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 (ACS), tobacco use is responsible for nearly one in five deaths - or about 443,000 premature deaths each year - and more than 49,000 non-smokers die as a result of exposure to second-hand smoke.
The ACS also estimates that between 2000 and 2004, smoking caused more than $193 billion in annual health-related costs in the United States, including smoking-attributable medical costs and productivity losses.
Additionally, 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.
November is recognized as Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and given the statistics above, it's a good time to think about helping yourself- or someone you know - quit tobacco use.
Interestingly, employers can play an important role in helping their employees quit tobacco. These days, it seems like we all spend more and more time at work, and workplace wellness programs provide support and incentives that can help employees stay focused on quitting.
Employers - both large and small - may consider creating a Tobacco-Free Workplace for the health of all of their employees. Policies and programs can be implemented in phases so the transition is not overwhelming. For example:
- First, establish a Tobacco-Free Worksite Policy. Focus on the benefits of a safe, healthy workplace. Organizations like the ACS provide samples of such policies on their websites.
- 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 allow 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.
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 and help reduce insurance risk. For example, since 2005, the percentage of our employee population who are tobacco users has declined to 7 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.
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 becoming tobacco-free is often a difficult one. Nicotine addiction is powerful, and kicking the habit is hard to do. Local employers can help by creating a Tobacco-Free Workplace and implementing a workplace wellness program that, together, can improve the health of employees and the bottom line.
Note: Q. Thomas Novinger, MD, MBA, FAAP, is Senior Medical Director of Utilization Management for Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.