Kicking the Habit in Sin City

By Joanne Wojcik

Jul. 29, 2008

Despite all the temptations available in Sin City, a Las Vegas gaming company hopes to persuade its smoking employees to kick the habit.

    To help those employees in their efforts to quit, MGM Mirage, which operates 11 casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, has even found an innovative way to shield some casino floor workers from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.

    In the near future, every Las Vegas gaming table will have a system that creates a curtain of air between the dealers and players who smoke, says Dave Groves, MGM Mirage’s director of wellness.

    MGM Mirage also has banned smoking by casino and hotel guests in areas where food is served, he said.

    Groves was one of two employers to share their experience with American Cancer Society tobacco-cessation programs during a panel discussion at the World Congress Executive Forum on Rewards and Incentives to Improve Employee Health, held June 10-11 in Dallas.

    Groves did not yet have statistics on effectiveness of the program, which was launched in January. However, Jessie Bayzn, a wellness coordinator with Matria Healthcare Inc., reported on the success of Fort Worth, Texas-based Bell Helicopter’s initiative, Well at Bell. The program, which Matria administers, has reduced the percentage of smoking employees from 16 percent in 2005 to 7 percent this year, she said.

    Bayzn said employer costs related to smoking go beyond health care expenses and include lost time. Drawing from Bell Helicopter’s experience, she said that when 900 employees were smoking, they generally took smoking breaks.

    Since smokers generally take about four smoke breaks a day that last about 10 minutes each, that adds up to 40 minutes of lost productivity per day per employee. Multiplied by 900 employees, or 16 percent of Bell Helicopter’s workforce, the lost time is the functional equivalent of having an additional 75 full-time employees on the payroll each year, Bayzn said.

    Groves said MGM Mirage’s management decided it was worth making the investment in smoking cessation because “we know our employees travel between employers, so any investment we make in prevention comes back to us in positive regards, so it’s much easier to justify the costs.”

    “The nice thing about Vegas is it’s a self-contained island,” Groves said. “We don’t have water, but we have desert. I may lose Maryann this year because of a 10-cent per hour raise, but she’s [likely] going to be back with me in about two years.”

    The average tenure of MGM Mirage’s 67,000 employees nationwide is 6.22 years, and 22 percent currently use tobacco products, he said. This compares with Nevada’s average tobacco use rate of 24 percent.

    MGM Mirage’s smoking-cessation program, Time to Kick Butt, provides free telephone counseling and printed support materials, free nicotine replacement therapy including patches and gum, and free smoking-cessation drugs. Recognizing that smoking is a habit that is difficult to kick, the free program allows employees to enroll up to three times each year for up to two years. The program also is open to employees’ spouses and adult children.

    Initially, MGM Mirage is tracking the program’s progress by collecting data on who is enrolling and who is not.

    “I’m more concerned about who is not enrolling than in who is, because we need to learn how to remarket our product to that population much better than we obviously are,” Groves said.

    For example, MGM Mirage has targeted frontline managers to ensure they have enrolled and serve as examples for the rest of the employees, he said.

    Because the program is part of an overall strategy designed to create a culture that encourages wellness, MGM Mirage provided additional incentives to urge all employees to take advantage of other preventive health services available to them through their benefit program.

    The incentives include a “wellness holiday” that provides employees a full day’s pay plus an average day’s tips to have annual checkups and screenings. This was implemented after a claims review found just a small percentage of MGM Mirage’s employees were taking time off to undergo routine testing. A focus group revealed that many employees could not forgo the tips they relied on as a major source of their income, Grove said.

    To encourage more female employees to have mammograms, the company and its culinary union invested in a mobile mammogram unit. Now women who work at MGM Mirage can have their mammograms during their breaks or lunch hours without having to leave the work site.

    MGM Mirage employees also receive a financial incentive to take a health risk appraisal, Groves said. If employees don’t take a health risk assessment at open enrollment, their coverage is reduced from 80 percent coinsurance to 70 percent coinsurance, he said. In addition, employees’ out-of-pocket maximums increase by approximately $250 annually for not completing the 20-minute health status questionnaire, he added.

    As a result of the financial incentives, MGM Mirage’s health risk appraisal participation rate grew from 14 percent in 2007 to 97 percent in 2008, Groves said.

Joanne Wojcik writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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