(NaturalNews) Confronted with rising health care costs, employers across the United States are trying out new and creative ways to get their employees to cut out a behavior that may strain the health system more than any other: smoking.
"We're talking about ending an epidemic. This is a global pandemic," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding said recently at an employers' smoking cessation forum hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California.
Roughly 45 million people in the United States - 23 percent of adults and 28 percent of teenagers - smoke. In California alone, smoking is responsible for $8.6 billion in direct medical costs each year, plus another $7.3 billion to employers in lost productivity due to smoking-related illness.
Participants in the forum heard Howard Wyers, owner of a health care benefits administrator in Michigan, speak of his efforts to encourage employees to quit smoking by offering incentives. When that did not deliver the results he wanted, Wyers told his 200 employees that he would no longer hire any smokers, and that anyone who did not quit smoking in the next 15 months would be fired. Eventually, he applied the rule to employees' spouses as well.
Wyers uses mandatory random blood tests to make sure that his employees have not started smoking again.
While not hiring smokers is legal in certain other states, such as Florida, the practice is illegal in California, which bans discriminating against employees based on their legal activities.
Other employers in the forum suggested using incentives instead of penalties, such as subsidizing smoking cessation programs and rewarding employees who successfully complete them.
"Our focus right now has been one of being supportive and trying to help people quit smoking," said Larree Renda, executive vice president of Safeway Inc.
Yet the company also has plans to ban smoking in all its U.S. and Canadian regional offices, and already makes non-unionized smoking employees contribute more to their own health care. The company is negotiating with the union to apply the same policy to union smokers as well.