A $278 Billion Reason to Look at Employee Smoking

A 2013 Gallup–Healthways Well-Being Index revealed that workers who smoke cost the U.S. economy an estimated $278 billion annually. That’s money that goes up in smoke in lost productivity due to absenteeism and extra health care costs. Breaking that down even further, an Ohio State University study reported that smokers cost their companies anywhere from $2,885 to $10,125 more than nonsmokers. The average cost per year, per smoker? $5,816.

3 Ways to Reduce Employee Smoking Costs

#1: Be a tobacco-free company

To help combat the rising costs of health care for smokers, some companies are just not hiring them. Currently, there are 21 states—including Washington—that allow such a practice.

In 2007, the Cleveland Clinic stopped hiring smokers. In 2011, health care giant Humana did the same in its Arizona offices. Three years later Baylor Health Care Systems in Texas followed suit.1

You might expect such action from organizations dealing with health care or insurance. But other companies have also stopped hiring smokers. In the 1980s, Alaska Airlines became one of the first employers to do so. Count Union Pacific, Weyco—an insurance benefits administrator in Michigan—and ScottsMiracle-Gro in Ohio, too.1

But for some companies, this may be too severe a measure or could adversely impact hiring. What to do then?

#2: Offer a tobacco-cessation program

For companies unable or unwilling to enforce a no-smoking ban or nonsmoking hiring policy, there is a middle ground: offering tobacco cessation courses. Panasonic, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson are among the organizations to do so. As to which resources to access, there are many.

In response to the Ohio State Study mentioned above, the online coaching firm SelfHelpWorks made public a comparison of the costs and efficacy of ten recognized smoking cessation methods. The most cost-effective one was the LivingFree online smoking cessation course.

Group Health (now Kaiser Permanente) originated and continues to offer the Quit For Life® Program, the nation’s leading tobacco cessation program. (Now it’s offered by Optum and the American Cancer Society.) Over nine years, more than 50,000 Group Health members have participated in the program, with a 91.4 percent satisfaction rate, and a quit rate of nearly 37 percent. That equates to a cost savings to employers of almost $34 million.

The American Cancer Society offers a 12-page guide called “Strategies for Promoting and Implementing a Smoke-free Workplace.”  Topics include developing, communicating, implementing, and enforcing a nonsmoking policy.

In addition, the American Lung Association also offers a number of resources to help employees stop smoking. A toolkit offers strategies, advice, and tools—including how to a business case to establish smoke-free policies—for providing smoking cessation services and support for your workers.

cost of employing smokers

#3: Explore quit-smoking apps

More alarming than what tobacco use costs employers is the fact that smoking is making a comeback. An article from the Group Health Research Institute (now Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute) points out that after decades of dramatic decline, the rates of tobacco use have plateaued. The last 10 years have only seen a three percent decline.

“That’s a tragedy,” says Jennifer McClure, PhD, a senior investigator at the Institute, who has devoted her career to changing this harmful—and addictive behavior. “Tobacco claims more lives than does any other cause that can be prevented.

“For years, we’ve been studying how to make stop-smoking programs delivered over the Internet more effective,” says Dr. McClure. “Now we want to design apps to help people quit smoking.”

Mobile apps will allow for an intervention in the moment when people experience a nicotine craving, withdrawal symptom, or stop-smoking medication side effect. Traditional self-help content would be combined with automated, adaptively tailored help. Additional assistance could be obtained from a trained counselor using secure messaging.

Says McClure, “We’d have the opportunity to provide them the right help at just the right time.” In a pilot study to be reported soon, mobile apps seem feasible and acceptable. Learn more about recent quit-smoking studies from the Research Institute. Or learn about how your employees can quit smoking, including how to make a quit plan, gather a support team, try again, and avoid weight gain.



1. “Every smoker costs an employer $6,000 a year, really?” by Susan Adams, Forbes, June 5, 2013.

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