New report shows smoking cessation becoming a higher priority for employers

Steven Loeb · February 1, 2022 · Short URL:

The pandemic caused nearly half of employees to smoke more than they did pre-pandemic

During a breakout session at the Invent Health Virtual Event - Primary Care and the New Medical QB series last month, David Utley, founder and CEO of Pivot, a digital health company that takes a multifaceted approach to getting people to quit smoking, asked the question, why aren't more corporations taking smoking seriously? 

After all, cigarette smoking actually kills more people than COVID; tobacco is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke alone. And the pandemic only made things worse, with cigarette sales actually growing for the first 10 months of 2020, after an annual decline of between 4% and 5% since 2015. 

That increase seems to be what has finally spurred attitudes toward smoking in the workplace to change, according to new report released by Pivot on Tuesday, called Attitudes Toward Tobacco Use in the Workplace

The study included 530 human resources professionals who are responsible for their company’s employee benefits programs, as well 1,525 employees who work in one of five industries with relatively high tobacco prevalence: construction, hospitality, manufacturing, retail, or transportation, and who also self-attest to using at least one form of tobacco.

When asked their top three priorities for employee benefits and wellness programs in the coming year, 14% of those HR reps put tobacco cessation at the very top of the list; that was behind only mental health, which 27% put first, and heart and lung health, which 23% said was most important.

In total, nearly half, 46%, put tobacco as one of their top three priorities, though that still pales in comparison to 64% for mental health and 62% for heart and lung health.The report also showed that COVID caused smoking rates to go up among employees: when they were asked about their tobacco use as a result of the pandemic, nearly half said it made it worse.

That include 12% who said they started using tobacco again after quitting, as well as 17% who said they increased their tobacco use, and a stunning 19% who said they started using tobacco for the first time during the pandemic.

As a result of those numbers, 97% of employers now see tobacco usage as a concern, with many of them pointing to both vaporized and combustible tobacco use.

So the next question is: what are they going to do about it? The answer: they're going to offer a tobacco cessation program in 2022.

In all, 73% of employers also said they will definitely offer such a program and another 21% said they are evaluating options. And employees overwhelmingly want this as well, with 85% of employees who don’t have access to an employer-sponsored tobacco cessation program saying they wished one was available, and 80% of employees who use tobacco saying they are likely to participate in tobacco cessation programs, including 31% who say they are "very likely."

"COVID and vape put an exclamation point on a massive problem that was not being prioritized by most employers. It raised awareness and I believe once many of these employers implement high quality tobacco cessation programs in 2022, they will be in place for the long haul," Utley told me. 

However, there is some disconnect between the employers and the employees on the effectiveness of these programs in the companies that already have them.

While 60% of employers believe that their existing tobacco cessation programs are very effective, that's about double the percentage of employees, aka the ones who actually use the product, who feel the same. And while only 11% of employers said they are somewhat or very ineffective, that number is 31% when employees are asked.

The report also showed that 26% of employees who have a program said that the lack of understanding keeps them from signing up, and 67% of employees who use tobacco say they often hide it from their employer.

Worst of all, less than half of employees are even aware that their employer offers these programs at all. As a result, only 39% of employees have utilized these services. 

"My hope is that this data helps those benefits leaders understand how other companies are viewing tobacco use in the workplace, what their employees who use tobacco think about their company’s treatment of them, and how to navigate best managing this crisis," said Utley.

"In the end, benefits leaders can change the lives of their employees who use tobacco, while protecting their brand and their bottom line."

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