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Hall County employees who light up might pay extra for health insurance
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County employees who use tobacco might soon find themselves paying more for health insurance.

Pending approval of the Hall County Board of Commissioners this afternoon, beginning Jan. 1, tobacco users covered under the county’s health insurance plan will pay a $30-per-month surcharge, in addition to their normal health insurance contributions.

"Hall County is just interested in the health of, and wants to create a healthy work environment for, all employees," Human Resources director Charley Nix said. "I just hope this program can create an initiative for all employees to commit to healthier lifestyle choices."

Nix estimated that 20 to 22 percent of the county’s insured work force, including dependents and retirees, use tobacco.

The more tobacco users a company has, the more the company has to pay to keep them insured.

Employee tobacco use costs U.S. companies an estimated $167 billion each year in health care expenditures and productivity losses, according to the American Cancer Society.

Using tobacco products costs businesses even more when you throw in absenteeism and lost
productivity due to smoke breaks and workers compensation claims.

Statistics show that smokers are annually absent from work 2.9 days more than nonsmokers.

Lost production time is 75 percent higher for smokers vs. nonsmokers and annual workers compensation costs are up to 12 times higher for smokers than nonsmokers.

Adding an insurance surcharge for tobacco users has been a national trend, said Joy Griffin, community manager for the American Cancer Society in Hall County.

"It is something that employers have recognized as a way to not only make that employee healthier, but their family and their other co-workers around them," she said. "It also increases productivity."

Nix said the county will offer tobacco cessation counseling programs for employees who use tobacco, along with a prescription drug program.

And, for the 2008 plan year only, "If they are a covered tobacco user and all their dependents who are tobacco users complete a program before June 30, 2008, then we will reimburse their surcharge for the previous six months," he said.

Griffin said within 24 hours of quitting smoking, a person’s chances of a heart attack decrease.

Anywhere from two weeks to three months later, their lung function increases by up to 30 percent.

And within a year the excess risk of coronary heart disease someone had as a smoker is half that of a smoker.

The American Cancer Society has offered smoking cessation classes, free of charge, for many years.

"If we’re going to reduce the mortality rate by 50 percent, one of the major things that we have to overcome is lung cancer, and that is directly related to tobacco use," Griffin said.

Griffin said she has seen success with such classes, though what works for some may not be the best approach for others.

"We have found that once you really make that decision to quit, however you decide to do it is going to be effective," she said.