Kimball Physics, a Wilton, N.H.-based manufacturer of scientific instruments that once turned an OSHA inspector away because he had just finished a cigarette, and Weyco, an Okemos, Mich.-based benefit services company that made headlines last month when it banned smokers from its employment ranks, are two companies that see smoking as an occupational hazard -- and as such, are trying to stamp it out.
A 2-year phasing-out of smokers at Weyco came to a head this past Jan. 1 -- the company's drop-dead deadline for smokers to break the habit or hit the bricks -- while Kimball Physics has had a strict no-smoker policy -- predicated on polite but firm enforcement -- in place since 1993.
What about smokers' rights?
Most smokers see workplace bans as an infringement on their inalienable right to smoke. At issue, then, is the question: Do smokers have rights, too?
"I think they do. But so do I," says Howard Weyers, president and founder of Weyco, which is a third-party administrator of self-funded medical, dental, vision and short-term disability plans. "And I had to be a responsible employer."
For Weyers, creating not just a smoke-free workplace but also a smoker-free workplace was a matter of setting a benchmark for other companies and clients as well as being consistent with Weyco's own corporate culture, which promotes healthy choices in a program called "Lifestyle Challenge."
"Weyco is in business to help other companies save money and improve employee health through innovative benefit plans," Weyers says on the company's Web site in an aptly titled essay, "Why Weyco is Serious About Smoking." "The health plans we create offer hundreds of options -- and our approach to smoking may not be for everybody -- but it's natural for us to take a leadership position on this issue."
The company's policy apparently wasn't for everybody: Rather than submit to mandatory tobacco testing in early January, Weyers says four Weyco employees signed releases and left the company.
Some smokers clashed with Kimball
Even though Kimball Physics since the late 1990s has developed a reputation as a smoker-free workplace, according to company president Dr. Chuck Crawford (who's quick to point out he's a physicist, not a doctor), there have been a few instances over the years when employees' smoking preferences have clashed with company policy.
One newly hired employee admitted to company officials he was a smoker but was planning to quit. However, after he began working at Kimball, word spread quickly that the man was sneaking in a few cigarettes on his lunch break and "consuming a substantial amount of garlic to cover it up," Crawford said.
While the worker was violating Kimball's policy that "No tobacco-residuals-emitting person, article of clothing or other object is allowed inside any Kimball Physics building," the policy is enforced by employees, and company policy is to let the matter go until an employee complains, Crawford said.
"What happened was kind of interesting," Crawford explained. "One hundred percent of the company knew this was going on. He was working so hard to conceal [the cigarette smoke] that the actual amount of tobacco smoke he was bringing in wasn't very big, so no one could complain they were having asthma trouble because he was bringing in residual tobacco.
"His co-workers simultaneously felt sorry for him and were laughing at him because he was covering it up with garlic."
Whether the man couldn't stomach being the butt of his co-workers' jokes or he simply couldn't kick the habit, he left the company several days later.
"You can't cover up smoke with garlic," Crawford said. "Turns out the poor guy didn't even like garlic."
Kimball pays the price for smokers' rights
Kimball Physics is an "MIT spin-off" whose main operations are located on a former farm in southern New Hampshire. Employing roughly 40 -- a number that varies due to contract workers and student interns coming and going, Crawford explains -- its most notable clients are NASA and the semiconductor industry.
Crawford is the first to admit that Kimball's no-smoker policy is stern, but, by design, it still reflects the company's genteel complexion of physicists, students and MIT grads.
"Our policy is to be polite," Crawford said. "Smokers are made out to be victims rather than perpetrators. At some point they made a choice to smoke, but they also were bombarded by advertisements from a thoroughly unethical industry."
The anti-smoking push at Kimball started in the late 1970s, Crawford said. At that point, the company asked its two known smokers if they'd be willing to "sell" their right to smoke to Kimball Physics. One smoker agreed to part ways with his right; the other refused.
For the smoker who agreed, Kimball Physics paid him $3,000 to abdicate his right to smoke. Crawford believes it was a small price to pay for "the health benefits of him not smoking, the extra smoking breaks, fire hazards, butts to pick up, lost productivity and other annoyed employees."
Several years later the recalcitrant smoker asked if Kimball Physics still was willing to buy his right to smoke, and the company gave him a cash settlement that included a raise and an extra week's vacation, Crawford said.
The policy currently in place at the Kimball Physics was developed in 1993 by the Policies, Ethics and Substance Abuse Committee, comprised entirely of co-workers. "If you're a machinist and you'd rather sit around a table and discuss substance abuse on company time for an hour or two, you appoint yourself and there you are," Crawford explained.
The policy, which applies to all who work and set foot on the company grounds, prohibits:
- Tobacco use or tobacco inside any Kimball Physics building or vehicle
- Tobacco use on Kimball Physics grounds or in any vehicle on the grounds
- Anyone or anything emitting "characteristic tobacco odors" on company facilities or grounds
As for the third policy, the company employs the 2-hour rule: "Anyone who has used a tobacco product within the previous 2 hours is automatically to be turned away, unless measures have been take such that residuals-sensitive persons are not exposed," according to the policy.
The company defines tobacco residuals as the fractions of the "chemical vapors and microscopic airborne particles" from "tobacco combustion products" that remain in a smoker's clothing, body, furniture and auto upholstery well after finishing a cigarette. Kimball claims these residuals can cause health problems such as headaches, stinging eyes, nosebleeds, stomach pains, coughing, sinus problems and asthma attacks in non-smokers.
According to the policy: " … It is simply not permissible to knowingly or carelessly make others sick, even mildly sick."
'We won't move an inch on it'
Weyers, who founded Weyco in 1979, says his company always has had stop-smoking programs available to employees. But he explains that when he heard early in 2003 that there was no law in Michigan forbidding employers from making hiring decisions based on smoking preferences, he asked his attorney to look into it. When Weyers' attorney confirmed it was true, "I moved real quick then."
"The first step we took was to quit hiring tobacco users," Weyers said. "If someone applied, there was a question on the application that asked them if they used drugs or tobacco. And we tested them before they got hired."
Even after that, Weyco said he felt "rather foolish" having smoking employees participate in the Lifestyle Challenges program -- the company has a full-time "lifestyles coach" on campus -- and "that's when we decided to stop them at the front door."
In the fall of 2003, Weyers told his approximately 200 workers that beginning Jan. 1, 2005, Weyco no longer would employ smokers. The reaction, in Weyers' words, was "negative."
"I knew it would be," he said. "Anytime you're changing something in the workplace, there's usually some negativity. But I told my manager, my staff -- we won't move an inch on it. We want to focus on getting people healthy and exercising. If we get them healthier -- our employees and their families -- we'll have a better work force and a less expensive work force."
The next step for Weyers was to charge smoking employees a monthly "assessment" of $50; if they took a voluntary tobacco test and tested negative or agreed to enter a smoking cessation class, the assessment was waived. He also told employees Weyco would foot the bill for any smoking cessation programs or methods employees used; Weyers noted several employees resorted to acupuncture to quit, and the company paid for it.
All in all, Weyers estimates about a dozen of the 15 or 20 former smokers at the company have quit after he instituted the no-smokers policy. In that regard, "It's successful."
The source of health care costs
Weyers, however, says it's still too early to tell if his no-smokers policy is paying dividends in terms of increased productivity. He said he's still concerned that some employees' spouses smoke, although he plans to address that in the future with higher out-of-pocket health insurance costs for employees with spouses who smoke.
Nevertheless, Weyers says his company's health care costs have been flat for more than 2 years, and his goal is to keep them that way.
"I think it's a direct result of what we've done in the past. We've had programs for 10, 11 years that emphasize health. That's the way we manage it and the way we do things. We just can't let it get out of control like some companies. They're screaming. They're looking for help and the help is right in front of them. They just need to address it."
The key to keeping those costs in check, Weyers believes, is creating company health and safety policies aimed at the source of health care costs.
"Employees manage health care," he said. "They're making unilateral lifestyle decisions that affect the bottom line of the company and the paychecks of the employees. The question is: When are you going to set expectations for health, just like you have expectations for quality, sales and safety?"
A sign of things to come?
Anti-smoking groups such as Washington, D.C.-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), have reason to breathe easier these days. According to ASH, 11 states have banned smoking in workplaces other than restaurants and bars, with legislation in a 12th state -- Rhode Island -- taking effect March 1. (Rhode Island recently passed legislation banning smoking in nearly all indoor public places, including private businesses, bars and restaurants.)
John Banzhaf, executive director and chief counsel of ASH, which led the fight in the 1960s to ban cigarette commercials from TV, says a growing number of companies are banning smoking in the workplace. He adds that most of them -- including Weyco -- have faced resistance from groups that advocate "the rights of smokers."
"But they're neglecting the fact that the majority of employees are non-smokers and we have to consider their rights -- their right not to be forced to subsidize the unhealthy behavior of a small percentage of their colleagues," Banzhaf said.
Banzhaf makes some of the same assertions used by companies such as Weyco and Kimball Physics to justify their no-smokers policies: That employees who smoke are less productive, take longer breaks and put a strain on companies' health insurance premiums.
"Smoking costs companies thousands in health care costs," Banzhaf said. "If they employ smokers, those costs are unfairly borne by non-smokers. Those costs could be used for higher salaries and better health care coverage."
He also points to a report issued this past Monday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that lists environmental tobacco smoke as one of 58 known human carcinogens, "right up there with asbestos, benzene, arsenic, radon and mustard gas," Banzhaf said.
According to the report, "Sidestream smoke and mainstream smoke contain many of the same chemical constituents, including at least 250 chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic." The report also states there is mounting evidence that second-hand tobacco smoke has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
'The policy makes it very clear'
While undoubtedly there are more non-smoking institutions today than when Banzhaf first launched his anti-smoking crusade in the 1960s, he acknowledges there still are "millions of workers who are involuntarily exposed to tobacco smoke on the job."
For companies considering smoking restrictions or an outright ban, Banzhaf has the following suggestions:
- Introduce the policy well before it takes effect in order to give employees a "reasonable" amount of time to comply.
- Support employees' efforts to quit smoking by subsidizing or fully funding smoking cessation programs; some companies bring smoking withdrawal programs on site.
- Make sure any committee or steering body responsible for designing the policy has some smokers on it. Often those smokers have much more success convincing recalcitrant smokers to quit.
Perhaps a final recommendation would be to make the elements of the company's smoking policy clear to employees and prospective employees. For instance: Kimball Physics' Web site has an entire section on what it admits are some "unusually strict tobacco policies."
"When we hire new workers, we don't ask them if they smoke or not," Crawford said. "We ask them if they're OK with the policy. The policy makes it very clear."