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Smoke-free workplace? Lower health insurance premiums by promoting cessation programs.

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"Smoking is a tough nut to crack. Sometimes a person has to try several times before they are able to quit. People are trying, failing, trying again. It's hard to see just how successful the program is when we are dealing with such a difficult issue."

--Tyler Andrews * Vice President of Human Resources * Chugach Electric Association

Anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking knows it is a difficult process. While we all know smoking is bad for you, the staggering statistics posted in a 2004 report by the Surgeon General highlight just how bad it really is. According to the report, cigarette smoking has been conclusively linked to diseases such as leukemia and other cancers, cataracts and pneumonia, with the toxins from smoking hitting nearly every part of the body.

Statistics indicate more than 12 million people have died from smoking since the original Surgeon General's report on the topic in 1964, with another 25 million estimated to die from smoking-related health issues in the future. The report states it is never too late to quit: the body starts showing improvements and healing almost immediately, and even a person who quits in their 60s can reduce their risk of dying from a smoking-related disease by 50 percent.

With statistics like these, it seems like quitting should be a no-brainer, an easy health fix that is guaranteed to improve quality of life. But smoking also is considered one of the most difficult addictions to overcome, having been compared by some as having the same level of addiction as heroin. Most people aren't able to quit the first time they try. According to the American Cancer Society, it can take as many as eight to 10 tries before a person is successful.

'ZERO TOLERANCE'

Many businesses now have a "zero tolerance" policy on tobacco, testing for it along with illegal substances, making it difficult for a smoker to obtain employment in an already tough economy. Luckily, there is plenty of help out there for those who want to quit. Some companies around Anchorage offer variations of smoking-cessation programs for their employees, from basic informational packets to more involved incentive programs. In addition, the State of Alaska's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program is a statewide program that works to eliminate tobacco use. This program works with other entities to help people stop smoking, as well as putting out education and information that might prevent people from starting.

According to Jessica Harvill, cessation grant program manager and Alaska Tobacco Quit Line Manager of the State of Alaska program, part of their comprehensive effort includes the Cessations Intervention program.

"It has two primary components," she says "The Cessations Interventions grant program and the Alaska Tobacco Quit Line. The Cessations Interventions program provides funding to health care centers throughout Alaska, addressing tobacco cessation within their service area. Many sites coordinate with local businesses to promote cessation services and the Alaska Tobacco Quit Line (1-800-QUIT-NOW) is a free service providing tobacco cessation services to all adult Alaskans."

EDUCATION KEY

The program supports a wide variety of various tobacco prevention and cessation educational plans. They have built a comprehensive tobacco prevention program that includes media, the Tobacco Quit Line, school and community programs and partnerships with nonprofit and tribal organizations.

"Our goal is to address the problem of tobacco-related death and disability from many angles," Harvill says.

The Tobacco Quit Line has been one of the more successful facets of the program, with individualized quit plans, personal coaches and nicotine-replacement therapy. Harvill states thousands of Alaskans have utilized the Quit Line since its inception in 2002, with an estimated 40 percent success rate. Harvill says since the implementation of the State's tobacco prevention and cessation program in the 1990s, there has been a significant decrease in tobacco use in Alaska. Youth smoking has been reduced by half since 1995 and adult smoking also has declined significantly.

EXPANSION ON FOREFRONT

The program's future includes a continued focus on expansion of its current comprehensive tobacco-prevention and -cessation efforts.

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"While we have seen a significant decrease in tobacco use in Alaska, there are still certain groups and populations with a disproportionately high rate of tobacco-related deaths and disability," Harvill says. "We will continue to develop programs to assist groups in addressing tobacco use in their communities and in successfully quitting."

"Many businesses have instituted strong workplace clean-indoor-air policies, which helps support quit attempts amongst their employees who use tobacco," she says. "The Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance, a statewide coalition, also works to increase the use of cessation resources by businesses and individuals throughout the state."

Harvill adds that while the state Tobacco Prevention and Control program does not work directly with businesses, it does respond to requests for Alaska Tobacco Quit Line materials. These materials are provided free to all businesses wishing to promote this service to employees, and include posters, displays and reminder cards with the Quit Line phone number on it. Harvill recommends businesses wishing to receive Alaska Tobacco Quit Line materials should call 907 269-0465 for more information.

While many Alaska businesses choose a hard-line stance against smokers in the workplace, one company that strives to provide incentives and motivation for their employees to quit smoking is Chugach Electric Association.

ONE SUCCESS STORY

"We've always offered some kind of smoking-cessation assistance to our employees, including reimbursement for purchase of the patch and such," says Tyler Andrews, vice president of human resources for the company. "In 2009, we added incentives to our wellness programs in regards to quitting smoking. Smoking is attached to so many health issues, our goal is to have healthier employees and as a result, lower rates of absenteeism and illness."

Chugach's enhanced program came about as a result of one of their insurance providers offering incentives to go along with the wellness program, encouraging the company to develop the program further.

"Through our wellness program, we have built up a smoking-cessation program in which I would say at least one-third of our employees have participated in at various times," Andrews says. "Each employee gets their own personalized account where they can track their success rates as they attempt to quit. The results are tracked through a third party, from which the insurance company gets aggregate data." When asked about the success rate of the program, Andrews says that is where it gets difficult.

"We struggle with the data on that. So much of the program involves taking people at their word, trusting that the information we are given is accurate. Smoking is a tough nut to crack. Sometimes a person has to try several times before they are able to quit. People are trying, failing, trying again. It's hard to see just how successful the program is when we are dealing with such a difficult issue."

Chugach plans to continue to enhance its program, with more education and activities throughout the year, as well as more varied wellness programs. It also plans to focus more on the Great American Smoke Out, a yearly event organized by the American Cancer Society in which the public is encouraged to stop smoking for 24 hours. Traditionally held on the third Thursday in November, the Smoke Out supports smokers in their efforts to quit by showing they can quit for at least one day.

"We realize quitting smoking is not an easy thing to do," says Andrews. "While other employers might be more aggressive in taking a stance against their employees smoking, our focus is on trying to provide positive incentives to quit, as opposed to negatives."

With a positive spin on assisting employees to quit, Chugach seems to be on track for maintaining a healthy work environment and improving the overall health of its staff. Programs such as Alaska's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program and the Tobacco Quit Line can give both businesses and their employees the additional incentive and help needed to aid workers in smoking cessation. As a result, businesses can enjoy perks such as reduced insurance premiums, fewer employee sick days and a workplace that is healthier for all employees and management. Smoking may be one of the toughest addictions to kick, but with continued State and local support, it looks like it might be getting a little easier for smokers to break the habit once and for all.
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Title Annotation:HEALTHY WORKPLACES
Comment:Smoke-free workplace? Lower health insurance premiums by promoting cessation programs.(HEALTHY WORKPLACES)
Author:Ellis-Knapp, Jody
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:1389
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