When Steve Edwards became CEO, he laid out a vision for our organization’s role in community wellness. His goal? To transform southwest Missouri into a region known for healthy lifestyles.
Edwards led CoxHealth in a bold step toward that transformation in late September, when he announced a new tobacco policy at a news conference at Hulston Cancer Center. When the change takes effect Nov. 21, CoxHealth will become the first health system in the Ozarks to add nicotine screening to the list of tests potential employees must pass once an offer of employment has been made. The new policy is the latest step in our efforts to provide a healthy, healing work environment.
“Every year 443,000 Americans die due to smoking-related illness,” Edwards told the media. “We could no longer reconcile the fact that our mission is to improve the health of our community, and we were not taking an assertive stand against tobacco products.”
Job applicants will be notified of the policy when they apply. Those who do not pass the post-offer, pre-employment nicotine screening will be offered CoxHealth-sponsored tobacco cessation classes at no charge, and encouraged to reapply with the organization once they have been tobacco-free for 90 days.
“Tobacco is a deadly addictive poison that dismantles the lives of its victims and their families. We want our workforce to be role models, to be leaders in a push inspiring our community to become a healthy place to live. We are taking a stand,” Edwards says.
Employees hired before Nov. 21 will be grandfathered in under the new policy, but are also encouraged to “kick the habit.” The organization will offer these employees and their health plan dependents tobacco cessation classes.
Missouri law specifically allows hospitals and organizations that promote health care to restrict hiring based on tobacco use. CoxHealth’s policy, and the cessation assistance it provides for, is modeled on a similar program at Cleveland Clinic.
“We are really just enacting a policy that has already been approved by our state,” Edwards says. “Our motivations are toward getting the right people and being leaders to help people who are smoking find a way to stop.”
The quest to help tobacco users kick the habit is a personal one for Edwards, who describes his father, former CoxHealth CEO Charlie Edwards, as “a dyed-in-the-wool smoker.”
“He tried everything possible to quit smoking. He never got it done,” Edwards says. “My father was the most honorable man I’ve ever known. He dedicated his career to health care, yet he struggled with smoking his entire life.”
As he was preparing to announce the policy change, Edwards decided to pay tribute to his father and encourage others who are struggling with tobacco by creating “Charlie’s Fund.” The fund, established through the CoxHealth Foundation with an initial $15,000 donation from Edwards, will offer a $1,000 cash incentive for up to 15 smokers who quit and stay tobacco-free for a year. Other leaders and donors have come out in support of the idea, raising the fund’s total to more than $35,000.
“I believe each of us needs someone important in our lives to help us quit,” Edwards says. “As an institution, it is our job to help our employees be healthier.”
Employees who make the decision to quit will have access to a variety of cessation resources.
Glenda Miller, collaborative care coordinator in Cardiovascular Services, has been fielding more calls from employees since the policy change was announced. However, she says many people trying to quit make a critical error: “People are under the assumption that they can do it by themselves.”
That’s a recipe for struggle, and, in many cases, failure.
“People are twice as likely to succeed if they combine counseling and pharmacotherapy,” she says.
Someone who has successfully quit will still face stressful situations, emergencies or life-altering events that will tempt them to return to smoking as a source of comfort.
Working with a coach will provide tobacco users tools, such as a “quit kit” that includes 31 ways to handle the urge to smoke along with ways to deal with stress. Smokers are encouraged to carry a small card in their wallet: on one side, they write five reasons they want to quit. On the other, there are five things to do before lighting up: drink water, breathe deeply, read the five reasons, take a 10-minute walk and call a support person.
“If they follow these steps, they won’t light up,” Miller says. “Smokers only need to distract themselves for a few minutes until the urge to smoke passes.”
Miller says employees who smoke can join her “Beat the Pack” support group any time they wish – and they don’t have to quit as soon as they join, they can set their own quit date.
Miller and Edwards both point out that quitting smoking is the most effective thing a person can do to decrease cardiac events.
“Everyone quits eventually, one way or another,” Miller says. “You decide to quit – and stay quit – or you have an event, like a TIA, a stroke or a heart attack.”
Missouri is one of the 10 lowest ranked states in the health outcomes we can control, and reducing smoking is key to creating a healthy community.
“If smoking killed people instantly, we’d all be compelled to not do it, but it takes decades and because of that we continue to have high smoking rates,” Edwards says. “Our employee smoking rate has been at 17-20 percent for many years. Until it’s at 0, we are failing.
“Our goal is to make this a healthier place. Ideally, a decade from now, people will look at our community and ask how such a radical change was made. At the root of the change, they’ll see the efforts we and our partners undertook to improve our health.”
For employees who are ready to quit for good? Charlie’s Fund will offer a $1,000 incentive for up to 15 employees who commit to quitting and remain tobacco-free for a year. Be watching the intranet and Connect Daily for details on how you can participate.
Become a donor: If you’d like to donate so more people can be inspired to quit, you may contribute at coxhealthfoundation.com or by payroll deduction through the employee giving program.