The Business Case for Hiring Tobacco-Free Employees 4

The following guest opinion was prepared by Central District Health Department Executive Director Russ Duke, with small contributions by me. We have submitted it to the local papers for publication but I have not yet seen it appear.

In December 2011 the Central District Health Department (CDHD) announced that it will no longer hire anyone testing positive for nicotine use. The decision was made by the Board of Health because of the irrefutable evidence linking tobacco use with premature death and chronic diseases, but also because it made good business sense. Now Ada County is instituting a similar policy for its new hires.

Since there is no way to differentiate tobacco use from nicotine replacement products, CDHD chose the tougher standard. Ada County will do the same. Nicotine replacement is designed to be a bridge to becoming tobacco-free, not an on-going habit.

The health argument against tobacco is powerful. For those of age, tobacco use is perfectly legal. It is a personal choice, but one with grave consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says smoking is a primary cause of at least 30% of all cancer deaths, and is responsible for nearly 80% of the deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and for early cardiovascular disease and deaths. For every smoking-related death another 20 people suffer with smoking-related disease. Smokeless tobacco products are really no safer; they are known to cause cancers of the oral cavity.

Clearly tobacco use is linked to higher health care costs. The CDC puts a $3391 annual price tag on each employee who smokes: $1760 in lost productivity and $1623 in excess medical expenditures. An American Cancer Society study of health care utilization showed that employees who smoked had more hospital admissions per 1,000 (124 vs. 76), had a longer average length of stay (6.47 vs. 5.03 days), and made six more visits to health care facilities per year than nonsmoking employees.

We are not only government agencies, but also employers. As such, we are tasked with protecting public health and safety while watching the bottom line. Since employers pay the largest share of the cost of employee health insurance, they (we) have a vested interest in reducing those costs. Every dollar we save on health insurance is a dollar we can use to fund other services to the community, or return to our taxpayers.

Tobacco users are absent from work more often. Smokers miss a little over 6 days of work a year due to sickness (including smoking related acute and chronic conditions) compared to their nonsmoking counterparts, who average just under 4 days of missed work a year.

Tobacco users are less productive. A full time job is considered 2080 hours per year. If a smoker uses just two percent of that time on cigarette breaks, it amounts to about a week of unproductive time away from his job. The more someone smokes, the less productive they are.

Smoke-free policies reduce smoking. When workplaces ban smoking they increase the number of employees who quit smoking altogether. This is followed by improved employee health, greater productivity, less absenteeism and lower costs for health insurance.

You will hear some people comment that the overweight and obese also increase the cost of health care, so why not ban them from being hired? First of all it is illegal. Second, a person’s weight is affected by many variables, some of which are out of their control, like genetics, environment and income. A person doesn’t choose to be overweight, yet everyone using tobacco products is making a conscious choice to do so.

Hiring tobacco-free employees contributes to the bottom line in dozens of ways. But at the end of the day, it also contributes to the health and longevity of our greatest resource, our people.

Russell Duke
Director Central District Health Department

Sharon Ullman
Ada County Commissioner

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4 thoughts on “The Business Case for Hiring Tobacco-Free Employees

  • Rick

    So what is the question. This page is filled with statements. As I understand it, the questions is “should businesses be able to tell you what you can and can not do in your off time”? If you dictate to people what they can and can not do in their off time you create a dictatorship. My question, “Is that what you want”? It’s a person free choice what they do in their off time. The same holds true to the Counsel’s recent decision to ban smoking on private property, i.e. the bars. Those bars are still considered to be private property. Boise City Counsel seems to be turning into a dictatorship. Sad to see this happen.

  • Sharon Ullman

    Rick ~ We aren’t dictating what people can do on their off time. What you are failing to take into consideration is that no one has a right to be hired to work for Ada County. When we post a job opening, we usually receive dozens of applications. It is in the county’s and taxpayer’s best interest for us to hire people who are tobacco free.

    You equate this policy to that of Boise City banning smoking in bars. These policies are NOT the same. We are not telling private business owners what they can and cannot do at their private businesses. Although we are looking at having designated smoking areas at county parks, our Board will not adopt a policy – like the one adopted by Boise City – to ban all smoking at taxpayer-owned parks.

    At the county, as a responsible employer whose mission includes protecting the public health and safety of those in our community, we are trying to lead by example.

  • James

    Instead of an absurd notion of dictating what employees can or can’t do in their off time, why not enforce a productive policy by enforcing a tobacco use surcharge. I’d rather you save taxpayer dollars by making tobacco users pay more for the insurance we provide them, instead of spending taxpayer dollars for a dictatorial policy. That’s the type of “lead by example” I can get behind.

  • JJ

    There is a private industry example, life insurance. The life insurance company does not tell me not to smoke, they tell how much more I am going to pay for the standard service than a non-smoker. If health insurance costs $1623 per year more for a smoker, then that smoker should pay the extra. It is unfair to the non-smoking co-worker to help cover the cost of others poor choices.