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A smoker on payroll can cost firms up to $3,800

In mid-2003, Weyco Inc., an East Lansing, Mich., health benefits administration firm, announced that as of Jan. 1, 2005, it would no longer tolerate smoking among its employees -- at work or in their private lives.

Citing high bottom-line costs associated with smoking, Weyco said it would no longer hire smokers. Current employees had the choice to quit smoking or be fired. The company established intensive smoking cessation programs to assist its 190 workers in becoming non-smokers, but also put in place a system of random Breathalyzer and urine tests to detect violators.

In a similar move, the Scott's lawn products' 5,300 U.S. workers have until October to kick the smoking habit or lose their jobs. Estimating that nearly one-third of its employees light up, the company pegs related health care costs at $6.3 million annually.

In December, the World Health Organization, the health branch of the United Nations, stopped hiring smokers. Meanwhile, Shape Corp., a Grand Haven, Mich. auto supplier, is no longer adding smokers to its 1,000-person work force; and Melbourne, Fla., is weighing a total smoking ban for its municipal employees, a move that could cut health care expenses by 25 percent.

While it is still rare for companies to dictate tobacco use policies that stretch beyond the workplace and into workers' personal lives, more businesses are taking big steps to convince staffers to "butt out."

Nationally, smoking costs more than $167 billion a year in lost productivity and medical expenses, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. The financial implications of having a smoker on the payroll ranges from $1,200 to $3,800 for each individual, according to the center.

A recent national survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) shows businesses are paying more attention to those costs. The poll found over the past two years more companies have beefed-up anti-smoking efforts:

* 74 percent said they've established designated smoking areas for workers; up from 70 percent in 2004.

* 36 percent offer company-sponsored smoking cessation programs; up from 32 percent.

* 26 percent have written policies that state smoking in undesignated areas may results in termination; up from 17 percent.

* 7 percent charge smokers higher health insurance premiums; up from 5 percent.

* 7 percent said they prefer to hire non-smokers; up from 4 percent.

* 3 percent ask prospective workers about their smoking habits, up from 2 percent.

* 2 percent charge smokers higher life insurance premiums, no companies said they did this in 2004.

* 1 percent have a formal policy against hiring people who smoke, no companies acknowledged this practice in 2004.

Jen Jorgensen, a SHRM spokesperson, said U.S. employers are in a transition from seeing smoking as a social issue to identifying it as an issue with huge financial impact. "Companies are facing double-digit increases in health care costs, so preventative health measures in general are on the rise," Jorgensen said. "Smokers, as an at-risk group, are getting particular attention. That attention has been elevated from prevention to discouraging the behavior, to outright bans in rare cases."

Michael Cummings, a senior research scientist and chairman of the Department of Behavioral Health at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, said those workplace efforts do pay off, for both the corporate bottom line and employee health.

"Anti-smoking efforts at work are wonderful reinforcement for smokers who are trying to eliminate tobacco from their personal lives," he said.


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