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County workforce has serious tobacco habit

serious tobacco habit
A new study has provided the first detailed data on tobacco use in Tooele County, including information on who smokes, why they smoke, and what may help them to stop.

Hilary Makris, Blake Smith and Jay Sadler — all former graduate students in the public health and nursing department at Westminster College — conducted a survey that asked 1,063 workers at 13 entities in Tooele County about their tobacco use habits. The entities were a mix of private-sector businesses and government organizations — including Tooele County, a bank and a salt distributor — with 50 or more employees. The students would not divulge which companies were surveyed.

According to the study, 20 percent of employees in the workplace in Tooele County use some form of tobacco. That’s a higher rate of usage than for the county’s adult population as a whole — 13.5 percent in 2010 — and a much higher rate than for the state — 8.8 percent — according to the Utah Department of Health.

Makris said it’s hard to tell what accounts for higher usage in the workplace than in the general population.

“Because we were targeting businesses that had 50 or more employees, a lot of the places we surveyed were bigger corporations,” she said. “It was easier for their workers to smoke or use tobacco products because they were more accessible on the job site. Then there were other places we surveyed that didn’t have anyone using tobacco or had very low rates. We really didn’t come up with a specific reason as to why that is.”

Included in the surveys were questions that asked participants their age, sex, race and level of education completed. According to the data, the majority of people in the workplace using tobacco are between the ages of 30 and 50, and 54 percent are male while the rest are female. A total of 88 percent of people surveyed were Caucasian, and 6 percent were Hispanic. Twenty-nine percent of people had completed some college, while the next highest level of education completed was a high school diploma with 25 percent.

Smith said the single biggest differentiator when it came to tobacco use was education.

“Generally speaking, there was a very low percentage of anyone who had a college degree and also used tobacco,” he said. “Almost exclusively, tobacco users were people who had some college or less.”

Makris said the costs associated with employees who smoke are much higher than the costs associated with employees who do not smoke. According to a survey done by the Centers for Disease Control between 1995 and 1999, companies spend an additional $3,383 above the cost of an average tobacco-free employee a year in health care costs, lost workdays and loss of productivity for smoke breaks.

“I can only imagine this number is higher now,” Makris said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a study that’s been done recently to see how much that has gone up.”

Smith said based on that annual amount spent on each employee, the group estimated that combined, employers in Tooele County are spending close to an additional $700,000 annually on the people they employ who use tobacco products.

The group also discovered what types of tobacco workers in the county were using. Of that 20 percent of workers who use tobacco, 17 percent used cigarettes and 2.5 percent used chewing tobacco.

“The rest are using everything else you can imagine,” Smith said.

This includes other forms of tobacco such as E-cigarettes and hookahs.

The survey also asked people if they were willing to discuss quitting tobacco. Smith said they found that most people — 82 percent — are willing to discuss quitting. Only 2.5 percent are not. Also, according to the data, 57 percent of tobacco users want to quit.

“If you take the $700,000 being spent in excess toward health care for individuals using tobacco products, you could potentially cut that number by 82 percent if you’re able to get those people to quit using tobacco products,” Smith said.

The results also showed that 88 percent of tobacco users are using daily. The top three reasons why people said they used tobacco were for stress relief, relaxation and because they were addicted. The reason that followed those was boredom.

Included in the survey were several questions about workplace policies regarding tobacco use, such as having a tobacco-free campus or not allowing people to smoke within a certain distance from the building.

“Policy is a big part of the workforce,” Makris said. “It can change employees’ behavior if you have a strong policy.”

Makris said 58 percent of workers knew their company’s policy, 24 percent did not know, and 15 percent were unsure if their company had a policy or not.

“That means almost 50 percent of employees don’t know what their workplace’s policy is,” Smith said. “But we’ve learned that very strict policies at the workplace do affect individual employees’ tobacco habits.”

Smith said only 3 percent of workers surveyed wished for a less restrictive tobacco-use policy at work, which he said compares to the 2.5 percent of people who were unwilling to talk about quitting.

Now that these results have been tabulated, Makris said she, along with Kim Clausing, health educator on tobacco prevention for the health department, will be calling each business surveyed to see if they want to revise their tobacco-use policies.

“A lot of their policies are outdated,” Makris said. “They don’t include things like the electronic cigarette. We also want to make sure that quit services available to them are understood.”

Clausing said if there are any Tooele County businesses that didn’t participate in the survey but would like to, they can contact the health department and still take the survey to learn what their company’s tobacco use is like.

Sherrie Ahlstrom, family and school health supervisor for the health department, said the study showed health department workers that they need to be focusing their energy on Tooele County’s workforce because there is a higher rate of tobacco use among workers.

“We know now to provide more information about cessation within the workplace, and that it’s important for places to develop a tobacco policy,” she said.

The survey was funded through a mini grant of $14,000 that the Tooele County Health Department gave to the Tooele County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism last summer. Together the students, health department and chamber worked on the project with the overall goal to reduce tobacco use in the workplace.

Debbie Winn, executive director of the Tooele County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said Tooele County is currently the third-highest county in the state when it comes to tobacco use, and data from this survey will hopefully help to lower that.

“It’s going to let us know what we can do to reduce tobacco use in the county,” Winn said. “That’s our goal: to help our employers here to have a healthier workforce.”

Read more: Tooele Transcript Bulletin – Study County workforce has serious tobacco habit

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