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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Challenge of Curbing Tobacco Use in the Military

As corporate wellness professionals, we're seeing more and more companies take aim at tobacco use. Many are offering smoking-cessation programs to their employees, and a few are even refusing to hire smokers outright. From a business standpoint, it makes sense: Over time, tobacco use increases health care costs and hurts productivity.

But if we're talking about the U.S. military, it's a different story. According to a recent AP article, tobacco use in the armed forces remains high, despite the fact that smoking rates are declining among civilians.

A study by the Institute of Medicine recommends taking steps toward making the military tobacco-free in 20 years. According to the AP article, "tobacco costs the Defense Department more than $1.6 billion a year in medical care and lost work days, while the Veterans Administration has spent more than $5 billion to treat veterans for tobacco-related illnesses."

Not surprisingly, the idea of a smoking ban makes some soldiers furious. "[B]eing forced to stop--not on my own terms--is something I'd have a hard time dealing with," one soldier said. Another felt it would drive people out of the military.

The lesson for wellness professionals is that people resent being told what to do--even if it's in their best interests. Whether we're talking about weight loss, exercise, or smoking cessation, I think it's best to encourage employees to make better choices on their own. They'll be more likely to maintain those positive changes in the long term.

So what do you think? How can wellness programs incentivize good behavior without seeming heavy-handed?

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