Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Gannett Co. Inc.’s employees this month are receiving a notice that tells them to kick their nicotine habit or pay an extra $50 for their health insurance each month next year.

The McLean-based publisher of USA Today and 98 other daily newspapers nationwide is the latest company to institute a smoking disincentive to encourage healthy lifestyles and curb rising health care costs.

“This is part of a health and wellness initiative the company started a few years ago,” said spokeswoman Tara Connell. For the past two weeks, the media company has sent letters explaining the policy to its estimated 40,000 U.S. employees. The surcharge will go into effect in January.

Gannett employees will be asked during the company’s re-enrollment period whether they smoke. Workers who admit to smoking will be given the choice of enrolling in a company-funded cessation program or paying the $50 fee.

The measure includes any employee who uses tobacco products, even if the use is “occasional,” Ms. Connell said, declining to explain further.

“We expect our employees to be honest,” she said.

Gannett is encouraging all of its operating units to establish their own rules regarding smoking in the workplace with the hope of being a smoke-free company by Jan. 1, 2007.

The company’s initiative follows similar programs from businesses nationwide.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., a Milwaukee health insurer, in March announced plans to impose a $25-a-month health insurance surcharge in January for employees who smoke.

State employees in Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and Georgia who smoke face a similar fee for their health insurance this year.

In response to the trend, more than 20 states have passed laws that prohibit companies from discriminating against workers over lifestyle decisions.

But the trend is not likely to fade, said Linda Cushman Ruth, a senior health care strategist with Hewitt Associates LLC, a Lincolnshire, Ill., human-resource services firm.

The firm found in a recent survey that 41 percent of businesses this year used financial incentives and disincentives in their benefit plans to modify lifestyles for high-risk employees. About 5 percent of the 950 companies surveyed in the report said their employee health contributions were different for smokers and nonsmokers, with smokers generally paying a higher monthly rate.

“Since health insurance rates have been going up for the past few years, companies are desperate to rein in the health cost for the company and the employee,” Ms. Ruth said.

Smoking, while legal, cost the nation about $92 billion in the form of lost productivity from 1997 to 2001, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mainly smokers are being selected for these kinds of penalties, but consumer-advocacy groups are concerned the measures could expand to people who drink alcoholic beverages or are obese.

“Consumers should have the right to lawfully consume any legal product without being discriminated against,” said Norman Kjono, spokesman for Forces International, a consumer-advocacy group that supports smokers’ rights. The group said it is funded by member contributions and has no corporate sponsors.

But companies in states without such laws have gone a step further in pressuring workers to stop smoking.

Weyco Inc., an Okemos, Mich., benefits administrator, this year enacted a policy that rejects any job candidate who smokes and fires any employee who uses nicotine products.

So far, seven employees have left the company. Twenty of Weyco’s 200 employees quit smoking since the policy was announced in fall 2003, said President and Chief Executive Officer Howard Weyers.

Union Pacific Corp. and Alaska Airlines screen applicants, in states where it is legal to do so, for their smoking status. Candidates who report that they smoke are rejected, the companies said.

While Union Pacific, an Omaha, Neb., transportation company, uses an honor system, Alaska Airlines, a Seattle airline carrier, requires a urine test to make sure candidates are tobacco-free.

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