Workplace Smoking: It’s Not a Problem

By Mark Borkowski

Recently I re-connected with Rick Weston, CEO of Addiction Management Systems. AMS pioneered the solution for workplace smoking problems.

I asked Rick why business owners and senior management deny there is a problem with smoking at work.

Rick: When there isn’t a known solution for a problem, denial is a convenient way to dismiss it. For more than 25 years that’s been managements’ rationale regarding extra outside smoke-breaks. The productivity loss began in January 1990 when the first legislated workplace smoking ban came into effect. To cope, smokers started going outside as often as they could and that practice remains today. Until they are aware there is a solution that smokers’ are willing to engage in, management continues to deny the problem.

Mark: Are you saying there hasn’t been a solution for the productivity loss for 25 years?

Rick: No, there have been two solutions; one approach is to view it as a smoking problem; the other is to treat it for what it is – a management problem.

For example, in 1992 the Nicotine patch was introduced and promoted as a way to quit smoking. The majority of managers decided this was the answer; a reduction in the number of smokers would reduce the productivity loss.

Employers’ added Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRT’s) to their benefit plan drug formularies. By 1997 they had invested tens of millions of dollars. Benefit consultants recommended their clients’ investment be reviewed. It revealed smokers’ numbers were not significantly reduced and for most employers’ the funding of NRT’s ended. It’s notable that managers are surprised and smokers are usually shocked to learn the Big Pharma companies who sell the NRT’s bought the AMS System for their employees.

Mark: The extra smoke-breaks are obvious; are there other less obvious problems?

Rick: Yes. The productivity loss is compounded by the behavior changes smokers have adopted. During legitimate and unsanctioned breaks, smokers have become ‘power smokers’; they make a sub-conscious futile attempt to top-up nicotine levels.

Unfortunately they aren’t aware the body cannot and does not store or top-up nicotine. The maximum level is achieved with one cigarette or less and regrettably, power smoking is much more harmful to their health. They receive an overload of carcinogens and toxins that negatively impact their ability to concentrate. Also, the toxin overload results in more sick days and an increase in the need for prescription drugs.

Mark: What do the extra smoke-breaks and power smoking cost?

Rick: In 2013, Smoking and the Bottom Line- a Conference Board of Canada study reported that combined, the three weeks of productivity loss every year and smokers’ extra absent days are costing Canadian employers’ $12.9 billion every year, which is an average of $4,256 per smoker. Mark: Can these costs be reduced?

Rick: Yes they can, and to reduce them it is imperative they are treated as a management problem that requires a management solution. For management to influence personal behavior; smokers must be motivated to re-think their habit/addiction. This is achieved when it’s announced that the workplace smoking policy is going to be managed.

Mark: ‘Manage’ smoking? What’s the reaction of middle managers and supervisors?

Rick: To say the least, those who smoke and those who never have are perplexed.

Mark: How do smokers react when they learn the new policy will not permit extra outside breaks?

Rick: They are predictable. Office and construction workers, gold miners, executives, maintenance people and even scientists in ivory towers respond the same way.

Initially, there is anxiety and frustration. The climate is compounded by anger when they learn they are going to be scheduled to attend a seminar. The seminar is an introduction to the help that management has arranged for them to cope with a managed smoking policy.

Mark: In this anxiety charged atmosphere what happens at the seminar?

Rick: At the beginning the tension is palpable. The most overwrought attendees are those who have tried to quit and failed several times. They have given up believing they will ever stay quit and the prospect of another failed quit attempt among their peers is incomprehensible and totally unacceptable.

At the seminar however, in the first 10 minutes you can feel the reduction in the tension because attendees’ demeanor visibly changes, when they realize their participation in the ‘help’ is voluntary and more important, it is failure-free.

Their arms uncross and they move forward on their chair when they learn their past failed attempts to quit are essential and positive steps toward being smoke-free. And, when they realize they can achieve their own personal goal, in their own time without the fear, guilt and loss of self-esteem they experienced with past failed quit attempts; participation becomes a no-brainer, particularly, when all they have to do is agree to stop taking extra outside smoke-breaks.

It has been suggested smokers’ experience an epiphany when they learn the more times they have failed to quit the closer they are to achieving former smoker status.

For these reasons, in exchange for not taking extra outside smoke-breaks, virtually every smoker (98%) at 4,000 worksites has voluntarily chosen to request and re-start the quitting process with AMS’ failure-free behavior change training.

Mark: What are the financial outcomes employers’ can expect from 98% participation?

Rick: The financial outcomes are influenced by both efficacy and control. According to Fiore et al Methods to Quit Smoking – JAMA – 1990; when smokers engage in behaviour modification methods that empower and enable them to unlearn their psychological, habitual and emotional dependencies; 20% will stay quit at 12 months and 42% will stay quit at five years.

Additional savings result among the smokers who learn control. They don’t take or require extra outside smoke-breaks. They learn how to stop power smoking, which reduces their cigarette consumption by up to 50%. Reduced consumption improves smokers’ health, reduces their prescription drug use and, according to a 2005 Ontario Health Ministry study conducted by Aon Consulting, smokers in control are absent 18% fewer days. The study also reported 23% fewer smokers at 12 months.

Mark: Have these savings been monetized?

Rick: Yes. The participation results in efficacy outcomes on an unprecedented scale. The reduction in the number of smokers, the elimination of the productivity loss and the reduced absent days, cumulatively, produce a 10-times annual return for the one-time investment.

Mark: It is common knowledge that for two decades participation in fully-funded smoking cessation programs has been +/- 3%. Ninety-eight percent will pose questions.

Rick: Mark, our ‘secret sauce’ differentiates AMS from all competitors. It is so effective, for 20 years it has been AMS’ policy to invoice only for the smokers who choose to participate. Personally, when I gave on-site seminars I didn’t miss a smoker for several years. My perfect record was tarnished the last time. It was in the Maritimes; there were 489 smokers at three locations and 488 became enthusiastic participants. I was visibly disappointed so the VP of HR consoled me by telling me the one I missed was a confirmed contrarian and, if all the others had refused the training, he would have demanded it.

Mark: Do smokers’ want to quit?

Rick: Great question Mark and when asked at the workplace, for reasons I mentioned earlier the unanimous answer is always no.

However, here are the facts. Smokers are desperate to quit. An Angus Reid Group poll reported 82% of smokers have tried to quit and 67% have tried more than once. In their effort to quit, smokers spend $150,000,000 every year for quit-smoking prescription drugs, NRT’s and sundry other quit-aids.

Rick Weston:
Mark Borkowski is president of Mercantile Mergers & Acquisition Corporation. Mercantile is mid-market M&A brokerage firm.

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