Cash incentive gets smokers on the wagon

Now, that’s what we call a wellness buyout!

Twenty-five years ago, employers eager to address worksite tobacco use were few and far between. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chuck Crawford, PhD, president of Wilton, NH-based Kimball Physics, was willing to shell out thousands of dollars in cash and benefits to get two employees to quit smoking.

"We had decided to substantially reduce the number of smokers on staff and not to hire any more smokers," he recalls. "At that time, we had two middle-aged men who had worked for us a couple of years who happened to be heavy smokers."

It was Crawford’s belief that ex post facto laws and rules would not really be fair to existing employees, he says. "Those were not the rules when we hired them," he points out. "We felt it was not our right to tell them to stop."

However, Crawford devised a clever strategy to help entice the employees to stop smoking. "If they had a privilege to smoke, I presumed they had the right to sell that privilege," he explains. "So, I asked them if there was any chance they would like to sell their privileges."

One immediately said "yes." He wrote down "privilege to smoke" in big letters on a piece of paper, signed his name, and gave the paper to the company. In return, says Crawford, "We gave him $3,000. We told him any time he wanted the privilege back again he could have it, with no effect on his job. He just had to give the $3,000 back. He never did."

The second employee initially declined the offer. A lot of his work was outside, so even when Kimball made its buildings smoke-free, he went outside to smoke. "He did this for five years," says Crawford. "Then, much to our surprise, he came to us and asked if we were still interested in buying his smoking privilege. We said, ‘Sure!’"

The second employee ended up with a "package" worth more than $3,000. It included a cash payment, a raise, an extra week’s vacation, and a cash buyout of his wife’s privilege to smoke. "If we didn’t buy the wife’s privilege, he never would have made it," Crawford says.

Was it worth the money invested? "Money is not the issue," Crawford says. "I viewed it as very likely saving or extending the lives of people. It really didn’t matter to us what we paid."

Was there any resentment among other employees about these two getting so much money to stop smoking? Not according to Crawford. "The other employees were very happy not to have to deal with smokers," he says. "I saw no hostility whatsoever."