Company efforts to stamp out tobacco often go up in smoke

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(Photo: AP)

U-Haul has an unusual wellness goal for 2020: hiring fewer smokers.

The truck rental company said in January it will stop hiring people who use tobacco or nicotine products in the 21 US states where it is legal to do so.

Executives said the new policy, which takes effect this month, is expected to the cut company costs by improving the health of U-Haul’s 30,000-person workforce.

Screening new hires for tobacco use is rare. But employers have long used financial penalties and perks to try to reduce the financial toll of tobacco-related diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Those carrots and sticks are part of most corporate wellness programs, which also typically aim to encourage workers to exercise, lose weight and control diseases like diabetes.

In recent years, researchers have begun rigorously studying the programs. The results show little evidence that wellness plans improve employee health or lower health care costs.

Some researchers have theorized that the savings reported from wellness plans may simply come from shifting insurance costs onto less healthy workers. In this scenario, workers who pay higher premiums due to smoking or obesity subsidize their healthier coworkers.

Those financial penalties can hit smokers even harder since they tend to make less money and often have less generous health benefits than non-smokers.

The American Cancer Society recommends employers focus on smoke-free workplaces and comprehensive quit-smoking programs, rather than penalizing smokers with fees or exclusionary hiring practices.

“It’s helpful for a person who smokes to be in a workplace where they will receive support,” said Cliff Douglas, a vice president with the society. “If they’re not hired that could be a real missed opportunity.”