Employers offer programs, incentives to help smokers quit

According to The New York Times, employers are paying for programs and offering financial incentives to help employees stop smoking. In fact, one-third of companies that have at least 200 workers offer smoking cessation programs as part of their employee benefits package; among the largest U.S. companies, it may be closer to two-thirds of employers.

Establishing these programs can help employers save money; business employers account for about $650 billion of the $2 trillion annual medical bill in the U.S. So instead of spending an estimated $16,000 or more (not counting loss of money or productivity caused by absenteeism and smoke breaks) for a smoker's additional lifetime medical bills, an employer can pay up to $900 for nicotine patches and drugs to ease withdrawal, as well as telephone sessions with counselors.

Smoking cessation programs that include counseling reportedly have a long-term success rate of 15 to 35 percent. One company that has employed a program is the United Parcel Service—13 percent of its 428,000 employees smoke, and the company spent $2.6 billion on employee health care last year. The Union Pacific Railroad, which has 50,000 employees, began offering a program two years ago and says it has helped to cut the smoking rate from 40 percent in the 1990s to the current rate of 17 percent.

Bruce C. Kelley, senior executive with benefits consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, Minneapolis, says the program's effectiveness depends on how long smokers abstain. Although a significant amount of people who enroll in the programs begin smoking again within the first three months, "for people who quit for 12 months, the recidivism is very low," he says.

Other employers are using financial incentives to help employees quit smoking. The Tribune Co. requires that employees indicate whether they or family members are smokers when signing up for the company health plan and penalize smokers $100 per month unless they join a cessation program run by Free and Clear, Seattle, a firm that offers telephone-based tobacco dependence treatment. Buffalo Supply, Lafayette, Colo., is a hospital equipment wholesale that rewards smokers who quit for 30 days and promise not to start again, offering $2,500, as well as payment for nicotine patches or gum.

Although the percentage of adult smokers has dropped to about 20 percent from 40 percent in 1965, there still are 44 million smokers in the U.S. Smoking reportedly is the cause of 435,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year and adds more than $75 billion to annual health care spending.

Date : 10/29/2007