Smoke-Free Marriott Moves to Help Workers Kick Habit

By Staff Report

Jan. 19, 2007

Marriott International Inc. went cold turkey in October, banning smoking in its guest rooms and work areas. But the global hotel chain took a step beyond most other companies by instituting a program designed to help employees drop their nicotine habit.

In a poll released in mid-December, employers ranked smoking as one of the top three health problems afflicting their workforces, along with obesity and high blood pressure. The survey, which was sponsored by the National Business Group on Health, also showed that 82 percent of companies want to support employees in their effort to quit smoking.

But one of the most popular solutions—creating a smoke-free workplace—only addresses part of the problem, according to experts. An edict to snuff out puffing won’t prevent a worker from finding alternative places to smoke.

The poll by the National Business Group on Health found that 78 percent of employees who work in a smoke-free office say that the prohibition has not inspired them to quit. The survey consisted of interviews with 508 companies and 510 employees.

To help its employees kick butts, Marriott augmented its no-smoking policy November 1 with a comprehensive smoking cessation program. Only 4 percent of companies offer such benefits, according to the business group.

Marriott provides a free anti-smoking package to all its employees and their dependents who participate in a medical plan. The initiative, which Marriott runs in partnership with the American Cancer Society, consists of 24-hour “quitline” telephone counseling and two eight-week non-prescription nicotine replacement therapy treatments each year.

Currently, a majority of Marriott’s employee health plans cover prescription smoking cessation products. By 2008, all of them will.

Marriott’s smoking ban was announced in the middle of July and put into effect October 16 to meet customer demand for a smoke-free environment. Smoking is now forbidden in all 400,000 guest rooms as well as restaurants, lounges, meeting rooms, public spaces and work areas.

In addition to pleasing guests, a no-smoking policy may lower Marriott’s health care bill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that direct medical costs related to smoking total more than $75 billion annually.

About 44.5 million adults smoke, according to the CDC. As those people drop the habit, they may become more productive. Ron Finch, vice president for the National Business Group on Health, says that cumulative lost time due to smoking breaks can add up to one day per week.

For Marriott, however, the motivation to ban smoking wasn’t based on the bottom line. “We weren’t focused on ROI,” says Karen Graham, Marriott manager of health plans. “It was more of ‘This is the right thing to do for our guests and associates.’ It was more of a philosophical decision to go smoke-free and offer this program.”

Companies seeking to emulate Marriott should recognize that smoking is an addiction, and employees may have to make several attempts to quit, according to the CDC.

The agency recommends that cessation benefits include at least four counseling sessions of 30 minutes each, cover both prescription and over-the- counter medications, cover at least two cessation attempts annually and limit—or eliminate—co-pays or deductibles related to smoking programs.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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