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Smokers Less Productive than Nonsmokers, Survey Finds

In a survey of employees at 147 U.S. companies, smokers incurred the highest health-related productivity losses compared with nonsmokers and former smokers, according to an article in the October edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The survey found that smokers missed more days of work and experienced more unproductive time at work compared with nonsmokers and former smokers. The average annual cost for smokers' lost productivity was $4,430 per year, compared with $2,623 per year for nonsmokers and $3,246 for former smokers, according to the article.

"Employers may reduce the cost of absenteeism and presenteeism by implementing initiatives that reduce tobacco use in their population," the article asserts.

The article, titled "Effects of Smoking Status on Productivity Loss," focuses on just one aspect of employee smoking: the cost of lost productivity due to smokers' health-related absenteeism and presenteeism.

However, the article notes that smokers drive up employers' costs in other ways - such as medical costs associated with treating smoking-related health problems; lost productivity due to smoking breaks; an increase in fires and fire insurance costs; and early retirement due to smoking-related health problems.

The article's authors - led by William Bunn III, M.D., JD, MPH, a professor of preventative medicine at the Northwestern School of Medicine - conclude that the results of this study show that smoking cessation programs "may benefit a variety of employer types."

"For example, companies that do not provide health benefits could incur cost savings from the increased productivity of employees even if they do not realize the benefits of lowered direct medical costs," the authors wrote. " … A better understanding of the complete cost of cigarette smoking, including both the direct and indirect costs, will help insurers and employers make decisions about the value of smoking cessation programs."

Survey: Smokers More Likely to Struggle with Depression, Anxiety, Asthma

To obtain the data for this survey, researchers used the Wellness Inventory, which is a tool that measures lost productivity related to 11 common health conditions. The Wellness Inventory is able to measure days away from work (absenteeism) and unproductive time at work (presenteeism) due to health conditions.

Employee volunteers at 147 companies completed the Wellness Inventory, providing information on sex, age, smoking status, perceived health status, occupational classification and hours worked per week. The employee volunteers also were asked to specify the number of days during the year that they experienced any of the 11 health conditions; the number of days away from work due to these conditions; and the typical number of hours they were unproductive at work on the days they experienced those conditions.

The volunteers were classified as nonsmokers, current smokers or former smokers, based on this question: "Which cigarette smoking pattern best describes your behavior - never smoked, former smoker or current smoker?"

During the study period - from 2001 to 2005 - 45,630 people completed the Wellness Inventory, although 10,696 records were thrown out due to missing data or because the responders were less than 16 years old.

Among the survey results, researched found that:

  • Nonsmokers were nearly twice as likely to report a better health status compared with current smokers.
  • Both male and female nonsmokers and former smokers with anxiety disorders missed significantly fewer days of work compared with current smokers.
  • Fewer nonsmokers experienced asthma compared with former and current smokers.
  • Nonsmokers were less likely to report depression than former and current smokers.
  • The highest percentage of current smokers was reported in customer service and production, construction, operating, maintenance occupations and material handling occupations.

While the survey was designed to including respondents that represent a variety of organizations, it found that for all occupations, current smokers missed more days of work due to health conditions than did former smokers and nonsmokers.

Former Smokers' Results More Similar to Nonsmokers

Noting that the U.S. surgeon general has said that quitting smoking provides "significant and immediate health benefits," the article's authors point out that their data shows that former smokers are more similar to nonsmokers than they are to current smokers when it comes to health-related productivity losses from absenteeism and presenteeism.

Even though former smokers were, on average, older than both nonsmokers and current smokers in the survey, "the average annual cost of health-related productivity losses was lower for former smokers than current smokers," the authors conclude.

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