WHEN SMOKING HITS HOME T here are human faces behind the data. The management team at Semblex Corp. had considered
implementing a smoking-cessation
program, but it wasn’t until a few years
ago when a longtime employee died of
a heart attack at age 51 that the plan
became a reality.
“Everyone knew him because he was
a larger-than-life character,” says Todd
Switzer, vice president of human resources for the Elmhurst, Ill.-based automotive fastener manufacturer. “They
also knew that he was a heavy smoker.”
The shock of suddenly losing one
of its 220 employees spurred leaders
into action. Within a month, Switzer
was meeting with workers to discuss
plans to implement a health insurance
surcharge of $10 per week for all tobacco users. Although there was some
pushback, the co-worker’s death had
made the situation personal for many.
“We wanted employees to be healthier,
and people believed in our sincerity,”
he says. The availability of a class on
smoking cessation and a promise to
waive the surcharge for anyone who
participated also made the change in
bene;t terms more acceptable.
Three years later, there has been a
lot of progress, but, Switzer says, “we
still have work to do.” When Semblex’s
e;orts began, 55 employees were smokers—about 25 percent of its workforce.
Since then, 48 people have completed
the program, and 19 have quit smoking. However, no workforce is static. As
people left or retired and new employees joined (the ;rm now has 260 workers), the number of smokers ;uctuated.
About 40 employees—around 15 percent of the manufacturer’s workforce—
are still smoking, Switzer estimates.
AND PENALTIES F inancial incentives and disincen- tives can make a di;erence. “That is really what moves the needle as
far as getting employees engaged in
a program,” says Alli Szott, wellness
advocate at Assurance, an insurance
brokerage based in Schaumburg, Ill.
Discounts and surcharges also force
people to reconsider their smoking
status every year at open enrollment,
A 2004 study involving General
Electric found that offering up to
$750 in cash incentives led to three
times as many people successfully
quitting after six months compared
to a control group—a finding that
was confirmed by studies published
in 2015 and 2018 in the New England
Journal of Medicine.
Leaders are picking up on this idea:
16 percent of employers provide a discount on health insurance premiums
to people who do not use tobacco prod-
he message board on BecomeAnEx.org provides a
window into the struggle: “[Quitting] wasn’t entirely
my idea—it is being forced by my employer,” one
person wrote on the smoking-cessation website.
At first glance, this person seems to resent
participating in a quit plan. Yet, he or she is invested
enough in the process to post this message—one
that yielded hundreds of responses of support from
others also trying to quit.
Smoking is a remarkably hard habit
to break, with studies indicating that
nicotine can be as addictive as heroin.
While nearly 70 percent of smokers say
they want to stop, only about 6 percent
succeed, according to the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC). Anything employers can do to
give workers even a slightly better chance
of kicking the habit can be worthwhile,
from both health and ;nancial perspectives. To that end, bene;ts professionals at many companies have introduced
;nancial incentives for employees who
quit or attempt to quit using tobacco and
nicotine products. The incentives have
been working and illustrate the in;uence
that employer policies can have on helping workers transform their lives.
The toll that smoking takes is staggering and well-documented. From
1964 to 2014, 20 million Americans
died from causes related to the habit,
including 2. 5 million from exposure to
secondhand smoke, according to the
U.S. surgeon general. While smoking
rates are less than half of what they
were in 1964, 42 million adults and 3
million middle and high school students still use tobacco products and
e-cigarettes. In addition, smoking and
secondhand smoke are responsible for
at least $130 billion per year in direct
health care costs and annual productivity losses of more than $150 billion,
according to the surgeon general.