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Using the workplace to help employees kick the habit

Smokers may have even more incentive to quit as companies clamp down on smoking privileges in the workplace. A stronger Canada-wide effort to thwart smoking in all workplaces may go a long way to decrease the habit among employees, according to a new report released this week by the Conference Board of Canada.

Among the suggestions was a call to ban lighting up on company property entirely as part of comprehensive non-smoking policies, while boosting supportive services for smoking employees wanting to quit.

While 19 per cent of Canadian organizations responding to the Conference Board’s recent survey ban smoking from their property altogether, Region of Waterloo Public Health staff note some of the detriments of such a policy. The Smoke-Free Ontario Act only prohibits smoking in enclosed spaces, leaving employers to mandate the rest.

Waterloo Region currently sits at a 20 per cent rate for its smoking population, close to the provincial average. Jonathan Hall of Public Heath says locals are fortunate to have many comprehensive support programs.
Waterloo Region currently sits at a 20 per cent rate for its smoking population, close to the provincial average. Jonathan Hall of Public Heath says locals are fortunate to have many comprehensive support programs.

“The first option would be to prohibit smoking from any entrance. Or, you can restrict tobacco use to a designated smoking area and then there are restrictions on those areas as well: it can’t be more than two walls and a roof. Beyond that you could restrict smoking on all property. So there are different options than just making the entire workplace smoke-free,” said Public Health nurse Stephanie Watson.

Stricter rules, however, can remove temptation. If it is less likely for employees to see others smoking around them, they are less likely to light up as often, she noted. It also significantly reduces second-hand smoke, cuts down on maintenance costs like custodial services in smoking areas and lowers the risk of fire.

A company-wide smoking ban can also draw on company funds, however. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that employees smoke an average of five cigarettes per day, with three consumed during approved breaks and two on breaks not sanctioned by the employer. Travelling farther to smoke, especially if company property is expansive, can cut into the employee’s productivity as they may take longer breaks.

Public littering is also a concern, as smokers are likely to leave butts on the side of public sidewalks and on lawns.

An across-the-board crackdown is not the only option employers have to successfully reduce smoking among their employees, says the region.

“Public Health has a program called Project Health. Basically it’s an initiative where we provide support to workplaces in Waterloo Region to implement comprehensive strategies to address workplace wellness, and we cover various topics,” said Watson.

Whatever method they choose, and any comprehensive efforts are considered a positive, Watson said employers have to enforce the rules with care. Companies already pay about $3,000 more annually for a smoking employee through productivity losses, and work absence (on average smokers are absent 2.7 more days than non-smokers).

In helping employees quit, Public Health also suggests that companies modify their insurance policies. On average it takes smokers more than one attempt to kick the habit and anywhere from four to six attempts to stay smoke-free. Removing lifetime maximums in benefits coverage is important for that reason.

“In the [project health] approach, we talk about four pillars, with the most basic being awareness-raising, moving up to skill building and supportive environments and then policy,” she said.

Conference Board of Canada’s director of leadership Karla Thorpe said further smoking bans and restrictions can help to “shift the organizational culture.” Thorpe presented the report’s findings June 18 at the Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Conference in Toronto.

Employers can do more than enforce policy, the board claims. Findings show that the best methods for helping smokers kick the habit are through access to medication and/or counselling. As three quarters of smokers are employed, the workplace is a practical place to offer additional support.

Poor sampling of the Waterloo Region’s rural municipalities have left Public Health to interpret the most current stats (2009-2010) with caution, Watson said, but currently the smoking rate among rural residents is about 10.5 per cent, with a region-wide statistic of 19 per cent among smokers aged 19 and older.

Smoking has been on a decline, according to Health Canada statistics, with numbers of smoking youths aged 20-24 dropping from 40 per cent in 1985 to just above 20 per cent in 2011. At 19.4 per cent, Ontario is in the bottom rungs of Canadian smoking rates, just behind British Columbia (15.8 per cent). Topping the pile is Nunavut at 59.7 per cent with the Northwest Territories (34.9) and Yukon (29.3) just behind according to 2011 statistics. The average for the country is 19.9 per cent.

Companies vary in their health coverage and services for their smoking employees, and costs can fluctuate. Watson concludes that companies don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune on smoking-reduction efforts but must have support in place along with policy.

“Connecting employees to things that are available in the community doesn’t cost the workplace anything,” she said.

Jonathan Mall, Public Health manager of tobacco and cancer prevention, said while the organization takes into account reports from the Conference Board of Canada, staff use many different sources for engaging workplaces in Project Health.

“We look at a lot of different evidence that’s out there,” he said.

For more local information and regional resources contact www.projecthealth.ca.


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