Snuffing out smoking

There’s a solid business case for getting employees to quit

Workplace smoking bans are sweeping across the country, and it’s inevitable that every jurisdiction in Canada will outlaw all smoking in the workplace. It’s no longer a question of if, but rather a question of when.

“From a legislative point of view it will be, at most, five years before there is blanket coverage of all workplaces across Canada,” said Francis Thompson, a policy analyst with the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, a non-profit health group based in Toronto.

All employers can take steps to help their employees quit, and research suggests the impact on the bottom line is well worth the effort.

In 2001 researchers looked at 300 call-centre employees at a major airline in the United States. The study, Impact of Smoking Status on Workplace Absenteeism and Productivity, found smokers, on average, miss 6.16 days of work per year due to sickness. Non-smokers miss only 3.86 days of work.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta puts a price tag of $4,113 Cdn on each employee who smokes: $2,140 in lost productivity and $1,973 in excess medical expenditures according to figures compiled in the late 1990s.

Thompson said as legislation tightens across the country the time is ripe for employers to step up and help smokers.

“About 90 per cent regret being smokers,” he said. “So it’s not an audience of people who are resistant to rules about smoking in the workplace. They just want a feeling of fairness, that they’re not being singled out and punished.”

Employers should implement smoking cessation programs for employees, and stick with them, he said. A very good program with pharmaceutical products and counselling might have a one-year success rate of 20 per cent. Since only a small percentage of smokers might try the program the first year, and 80 per cent will likely fail, it won’t have a huge impact on the bottom line from the employer’s point of view.

But if the employer makes the program a permanent part of its benefits offering, and actively promotes it on a regular basis, results will follow, he said.

“Absenteeism is higher for smokers. And in the long term they may become seriously ill or die,” said Thompson. “There are about 47,000 deaths a year from smoking in Canada, and about half are premature deaths of people likely to be in the workforce. We’re going to have to see whether employers can do the math on that or whether the government will step in and have more integrated and standardized cessation assistance.”

A medical problem, not a moral issue

Thompson said employers should also work to end the stigma around smoking and recognize that it’s a medical problem and not simply a willpower issue.

“It’s still seen very much that cessation is largely a matter of personal willpower and there’s even kind of an undercurrent of morality. Are you morally strong enough to quit? But nobody asks are you morally strong enough to overcome your tuberculosis or your back problems,” he said.

Kelli-an Lawrance, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who specializes in smoking cessation, said there is no magic bullet.

“But what employers can do is create a supportive environment in which people can quit,” she said.

“By reducing the number of cues to smoke, you can support those who are trying to quit,” she said. “If you make bicycle racks available at work, it’s a lot easier to ride your bike to work. So one of the things workplaces can do is have policies that support to non-smokers.”

Employers can limit outdoor smoking so that people who are trying to quit, and those who don’t smoke, don’t have to walk through smoky doorways to get into the building.

Lawrance said young smokers are particularly ripe for the picking. They generally smoke less than older adults and are more likely to attempt to quit.

“As you get older your incidence of trying to quit goes down, and the number of cigarettes you smoke tends to go up,” she said. “There’s also more young adults smoking than older adults, so they really are the group you want to target.”

Employers should remember that, for young workers, smoking restrictions are nothing new.

“They came through public and secondary school with no smoking on school property ever,” she said. “They’re very accustomed to smoking restrictions and probably more open to information related to quitting.”

But regardless of the age, the more an employer can offer the better, she said. A smoker who tries to quit on his own, without any assistance, only has about a five per cent chance of success.

“But people try repeatedly and their chances of success go up with every attempt,” said Lawrance. “And as you start to use different tools, your chances of success go up that much more.”

The stages of change

Smokers typically go through a number of stages in their smoking lives, said Kelli-an Lawrance, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

No interest in quitting: They’re not ready, they’re not motivated and it doesn’t matter what anyone says to them. They’re not going to quit.

The first stirrings of change: The smoker wakes up in the morning and decides to quit. But then they get to work and their friends are having a cigarette and they feel very ambivalent.

“Those are the people that say, ‘I know I should quit, but…’ and those are the people who employers can probably offer the best kind of support to by helping them articulate those reasons for wanting to quit,” said Lawrance.

Making the attempt: This is the stage at which the smoker starts to look for outside help, calling helplines, visiting websites, leafing through printed materials or going to the doctor.

“If employers recognized that there were these stages, and they’re pretty identifiable if you just listen to smokers and how they talk, they could help all those ambivalent people to understand why they want to quit and help tip the scales in favour of them,” she said.

Where to turn for help

The Canadian Cancer Society’s Smokers’ Helpline is a free, confidential telephone service for all smokers, whether they are ready to quit or not. In Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Saskatchewan the telephone number is (877) 513-5333. In Prince Edward Island the number is (888) 818-6300. In Quebec the number is (888) 853-6666.

In British Columbia, residents can call Quitnow at (877) 455-2233. Alberta residents can call the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission’s helpline at (866) 332-2322. In Newfoundland and Labrador, residents can call a quit line at (800) 363-5864.

Health Canada also has information online at

Legislation clears the air

A look at what some jurisdictions across Canada have done, or plan to do, to ban smoking in the workplace.

Internationally, on Feb. 27, 2005, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control came into force. The treaty, which the federal government signed, is the first one initiated by the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization. Article 8 of the treaty states that “non-smokers must be protected in workplaces, public transport and indoor public places.” Evidence indicates that only a total smoking ban is effective in protecting non-smokers, it states.

Ontario has proposed a ban on smoking in workplaces and all indoor areas. It also would ban smoking in work vehicles. The ban would come into force on May 31, 2006.

Saskatchewan has a complete ban on smoking in public places that came into force on Jan. 1, 2005. The ban includes outdoor seating areas. Fines for restaurants and bars can run as high as $25,000.

New Brunswick and Manitoba passed comprehensive workplace smoking bans on Oct. 1, 2004.

Nunavut and the Northwest Territories banned smoking in all enclosed areas and work sites on May 1, 2004.

Prince Edward Island banned smoking in any public place or workplace on June 1, 2003.

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