Company efforts to stamp out tobacco often go up in smoke

WASHINGTON (AP)— U-Haul has an unusual wellness goal for 2020: hiring fewer smokers.

The truck rental company said in January it will stop hiring people who use tobacco or nicotine products in the 21 U.S. states where it is legal to do so.

Executives said the new policy, which takes effect this month, is expected to the cut company costs by improving the health of U-Haul’s 30,000-person workforce.

Screening new hires for tobacco use is rare. But employers have long used financial penalties and perks to try to reduce the financial toll of tobacco-related diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Those carrots and sticks are part of most corporate wellness programs, which also typically aim to encourage workers to exercise, lose weight and control diseases like diabetes.

In recent years, researchers have begun rigorously studying the programs. The results show little evidence that wellness plans improve employee health or lower health care costs.

Cigarette expenses

Smoking-related medical expenses add nearly $170 billion a year to employer and government medical expenses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Employers also lose $156 billion in lost productivity due to smoking and related health issues.

Roughly 70 percent of large employers offer programs to help employees quit smoking as part of their health coverage. The gold-standard approach involves counseling sessions and nicotine gums, patches and medications to control cravings.

One fourth of large firms add another penalty to push smokers to quit: an extra charge on their health premiums. The fee usually amounts to about $600 a year for workers, according to survey data from consultant Mercer, which designs corporate health and wellness plans. About 10 percent of employers provide other incentives, such as points that can be redeemed for prizes.

Wellness returns?

Despite an estimated $8 billion spent on wellness programs annually, experts say they haven’t been shown to deliver the long-term benefits promised.

“There isn’t any evidence that these programs actually result in people smoking less or eating less or exercising more,” said Karen Pollitz, who studies insurance and health plans at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Some studies have picked up short-term improvements, but nothing sustained.”

Although many employers report cost-savings from wellness programs, researchers say those results are likely skewed because healthier workers are more likely to participate in the programs, boosting positive results.

A randomized 4,000-patient study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that employees enrolled in wellness programs showed no major improvements in health status or health care spending after 18 months, compared with employees who didn’t participate.

By Kerry Minor

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