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7 ways to curb tobacco use in the workplace

Create a plan for tobacco users who need help quitting.

This article was last updated Jan. 17, 2023.

Since the start of 2020, 20 percent of millennials are smoking more, and 16 percent are using drugs for non-medical purposes.
Supporting the behavioral health of your millennial employees External Site

Most tobacco users have one thing in common: They want to quit. If they’re working for you, there’s a chance you could help them.

While smoking is an incredibly difficult habit to break, nearly 70 percent of smokers say they want to stop External Site. Of the 52 percent who have tried to quit, less than 10 percent succeed.

While it may seem a steep hill to climb, tobacco use is costing employers too much to ignore the problem. Compared to non-smokers, it’s estimated that each tobacco user costs an employer External Site nearly $6,000 more per year in absenteeism, higher health care costs and lower productivity due to smoking-related health problems. In one study, researchers estimated smokers took an average of 11 more sick days External Site per year than non-smokers. What's more, smoking breaks External Site account for an average of six days of time off per year.

Nicotine is never safe. The highly addictive substance is dangerous no matter how it is used:

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  • Smoking. Nineteen percent of adults — that’s 38 million Americans — smoke External Site. Smoking remains high among certain groups External Site, including males ages 25 – 64 years, people with less education and people who live in the Midwest or South.
  • Smokeless tobacco. An additional six million adults — nearly 5 in every 100 adult men — use smokeless tobacco External Site (e.g., chewing tobacco, snuff or dip), and those numbers have steadily increased External Site over time. Smokeless tobacco is not a safe alternative to smoking.
  • Vaping. A new generation is getting hooked on nicotine Opens in a new window through the use of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes. An estimated 8.1 million U.S. adults are vaping, and numbers are highest among men External Site, non-Hispanic white adults, and those aged 18–24.
  • Nicotine use persists despite health hazards

    Cigarette smoking is declining overall External Site, yet each year, nearly half a million Americans die prematurely of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Another 16 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking. Among the many lung-related problems caused by nicotine, it also increases risks of cardiovascular, respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders. Nicotine also decreases immune response, impacts reproductive health and can lead to cancer.

    While it’s tempting to think the tobacco problem will fade away as younger generations understand the perils of smoking, that’s not the case. Rather than smoking, millennials are turning to e-cigarettes. According to the Survey of the American Consumer®, 44 percent of smokers who use e-cigarettes are millennials External Site. Surprisingly, millennials are unhealthier than their Generation X counterparts.

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    Smoking-related illness in the U.S. costs more than $600 billion each year External Site, including:

    • Nearly $240 billion for direct medical care for adults
    • More than $185 billion in lost productivity, including $7 billion in lost productivity due to secondhand smoke exposure

    What we know about vaping

    In their quest to quit tobacco, some smokers switch to vaping. But, because e-cigarettes have only been available in the U.S. since 2006, there is little known about its long-term effects.

    Along with other chemicals, e-cigarettes contain nicotine. According to the American Cancer Society, e-cigarettes are less harmful External Site than traditional smoking. However, in August of 2019, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began investigating cases of a severe lung illness External Site believed to be linked to e-cigarette use and vaping.

    7 ways to curb tobacco use in your workplace

    "There are a variety of ways employers can provide a positive nudge to help employees quit," says Amanda Dorr, employer health and well-being consultant at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. "There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Before you start, there are many things to take into account, including your corporate culture, the industry you work in, the demographics of your workforce and the end goal."

    She adds, “There are various extremes. Some employer groups hire only people who are non-smokers. Of course, not all companies, particularly those in manufacturing or blue-collar industries, can make that kind of leap and be successful."

    Dorr offers the following strategies to help curb tobacco use in your workplace:

    1. Adopt a vaping policy. If your policy bans smoking or tobacco products, it may not cover e-cigarettes. Rewrite your tobacco policy to include rules around e-cigarette usage and other vaporizers. Establish clear consequences for any violation of the policy, and communicate the policy clearly to all your employees.
    2. Promote tobacco cessation benefits. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) and other federal laws and rules require most health insurance plans External Site in the U.S. to cover some level of tobacco cessation treatments. Availability varies by plan, so work with your Wellmark representative to determine if and how you can promote these benefits to your employees.

    3. Wellmark's tobacco cessation program

      Help your employees find their reason to quit with this 12-week tobacco cessation program. Educate your employees about the program by sharing the flyer in your workplace. Search M-9029 in the Marketing Toolkit to download it for free.

    4. Offer incentives on health care premiums. Some employer groups may want to include a smoking surcharge for health plans, premium discounts for not using tobacco, or premium discounts for smokers enrolled in a smoking-cessation program. "This is not an effective strategy for every employer group," says Dorr. "It depends on your corporate culture."
    5. Provide a workplace well-being benefit to your employees. Depending on the size of your employer group, you can purchase or upgrade your workplace well-being benefit to include tobacco cessation tools and resources. “Nearly 90 percent people who use the wellness center indicate a better understanding of their personal health,” says Dorr.
    6. Offer health coaching. Telephonic health coaching can be an effective tool that provides employees with one-on-one guidance to help them make long-term lifestyle changes. Health coaching is personalized to each individual’s modifiable risk factors, such as weight, blood pressure, smoking, depression, stress, alcohol use and exercise. Contact your Wellmark account team for more information about the possibility of offering this type of health coaching to your employees.
    7. Make support tools available. Nicotine has a powerful effect on brain chemistry and emotions. According to Dorr, "Among Wellmark members who smoke, nearly 75 percent have been using cigarettes for 15 years or more.* It’s embedded in their behavior. Don’t underestimate how difficult withdrawal symptoms may be for employees who want to quit." She suggests providing easy access to nicotine gum and patches or making other support services such as stress management coaching, nutrition counseling and exercise programs available.
    8. Repeat and repeat again. Regularly provide information about the health risks of smoking, plus the programs available to those who want to quit. Promote the information at health fairs, in newsletters and in payroll stuffers. Tap into free promotional materials, programs and toolkits from sponsoring organizations, such as the World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day External Site in May and the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout® External Site in November. “It takes a lot of communication,” says Dorr. “If you’re serious about helping your employees quit, communicate about it frequently."

    Want to work toward a tobacco-free workplace?

    Wellmark can report on the cost of tobacco use in your workplace, along with important data about your employees' physical activity, nutrition, sleep and other health and wellness markers. That’s because we have insights and data on your employees you may not have in-house. Our health and well-being consultants can be your go-to-source for finding the right combination of solutions — because one-size doesn’t fit all.

    If you're interested in learning more about Wellmark’s employer well-being and consulting services, contact your authorized Wellmark representative or email us at Send Email.

    *This number is based on Wellmark members who completed a Wellness Assessment in 2020.