Getting employees to butt out for good

Steps to success: Conduct an assessment, make it personal and monitor results
By Erin Dick
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/26/2011

With so many smoking restrictions in place, smoking at the office is truly of a bygone era — something seen on TV shows such as Mad Men but never experienced first-hand. It’s hard to fathom nearly one-half (49.5 per cent) of all Canadians smoked in the 1960s, according to Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.

We’ve come a long way. Legislation and high cigarette costs have greatly restricted smoking and there’s much more awareness of the health risks, including those related to second-hand and third-hand smoke. The smoking rate has dropped to about 23 per cent, according to a 2011 report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and almost all public areas and workplaces are smoke-free.

While the overall trends are positive, the long-term health and cost issues related to smoking are too often overlooked. The habit and its effect on employee health and employer costs continue to be both relevant and significant.

With more than five million working-age Canadians still smoking, a high rate of smoking among the youngest generation of workers and an annual cost to employers of thousands of dollars for each smoking employee, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, efforts to reduce the rate of smoking in the workforce are well worth undertaking.

An employee who quits smoking can save her employer about $3,396 per year, according to the Conference Board of Canada in the 2006 report Smoking and the Bottom Line: Updating the costs of smoking in the workplace. Employers have a direct interest in helping employees quit smoking — and providing a smoking cessation program for employees is “less cost, more investment” than they might have thought.

Workforce demographics relating to smoking are also a concern. Generation-Y employees — born between 1982 and 1993 — are part of the group with the highest smoking rate (29 per cent for ages 20 to 34), according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. While gen-Y employees represent about 25 per cent of the workforce, that number will rise over the next decade and make them the largest group in the workplace.

If gen-Y employees don’t break the habit as they age, the additional cost to employers could be significant. This represents a huge challenge, as smoking is one of the most difficult bad health habits to break.

It takes an average of 3.1 tries before successfully quitting smoking, according to a 2004 report from Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, and almost 80 per cent of Canadians cite a lack of willpower and drive when working towards their healthy living goals, according to the Sun Life Canadian Health Index.

Clearly, this is one initiative where employees need all the help and support they can get. The good news? Employers are ideally positioned to offer the tools, support and incentives employees need to quit — through general wellness initiatives and targeted smoking cessation programs in the workplace.

Best practices – how to lower smoking rates in the workforce

Conduct an assessment of the employee population: By finding out how many employees smoke and how many are ready to make a change, an employer can focus its initiatives for the greatest impact.

Make the program personal: Regular, facilitated group meetings can provide employees with the peer and professional support often needed to kick the habit. One-on-one coaching can also be offered for those who prefer a more private approach. The inclusion of family members in the process can also be a critical element in creating a supportive, successful network for the employee.

Monitor results: Followup sessions are an important way to help participants keep their resolve. At each of these sessions, participants should be interviewed, have their needs assessed and have any additional support materials provided.

Include other wellness initiatives: Employees who participate in smoking cessation programs often become more aware of their general health (such as exercise, nutrition or stress reduction). By providing employees with access to these other wellness solutions, an employer can further improve its health results and cost savings.

Integrate smoking cessation with the group benefits plan: There are a number of smoking aids and therapies that can be instrumental in helping a smoker quit. By ensuring the cost of these aids is fully or partially covered under a group benefits plan, employers can provide smokers with the additional incentives and support they may need to be successful.

Reap the rewards of smoking cessation: Employer health costs continue to rise and preventive programs — such as those related to smoking cessation — are becoming an increasingly important cost-management tool. With the fastest-growing employee demographic — generation Y — reporting the highest levels of smoking, the long-term cost benefits of lowering the smoking rate of this group are significant.

Few of the steps to better health are as difficult as quitting smoking but a program that supports the initiative can make all of the difference. Employers are uniquely positioned to offer this support through an integrated wellness program that includes smoking cessation support and incentives.

It’s good for employees and good for the bottom line. That’s an investment worth making.

Erin Dick is manager of health and wellness in group benefits at Sun Life Canada in Toronto. She can be reached at or (416) 408-8933.

Reality check

Smoking in Canada

The numbers: About five million working-age Canadians still smoke (29 per cent of 20 to 34 year olds, 24.6 per cent of 35 to 44 year olds and 23.1 per cent of 45 to 64 year olds), according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

The impact: Smokers are more likely to report being overwhelmed by stress (32 per cent versus 22 per cent of the overall Canadian population), according to the 2010 Sun Life Canadian Health Index. They are also less productive and more likely to be absent, according to the Conference Board of Canada. And they have a life expectancy that is 13.9 years lower than a non-smoker, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Tobacco kills about 45,000 Canadians per year, according to the Canadian Lung Association. Smokers are at very high risk for many diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); cancer of the lung, mouth, breast, pancreas, stomach, liver, bladder and kidney; high blood pressure and cholesterol; pneumonia and influenza; tooth decay and gum disease; osteoporosis; and cataracts.

Cost savings: When costs relating to health and disability claims, absenteeism and lower productivity are totalled, an employee who quits smoking can save an organization thousands of dollars per year, according to the Conference Board of Canada study Smoking and the Bottom Line.

Desire for change: One-in-four smokers resolved to quit smoking, according to the 2010 Sun Life Canadian Health Index. While quitting is a difficult task that often needs repeating, the desire for change is there and success is most often achieved when the right support is in place.

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