Alex Cohen is the Director of Learning and Evaluation for the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
Public policies like higher cigarette taxes and expanded access to evidence-based cessation treatment can help lower smoking rates in Indianapolis and across the state. But employers looking to help their employees quit and improve their health today have a number of tools already available, beyond these longer-term policy efforts.
Take the experience of two Fortune 500 companies who used incentives to help employees quit.
In 2004, General Electric launched a program that offered employees up to $750 if they quit smoking for 12 months. To test the impact, GE randomly offered the incentive to some employees but not others, then followed up with both groups to see if smoking rates were different. They found quit rates were three times as high for smokers who received the financial incentive. Today, the program has been scaled up company wide.
More recently, CVS Caremark tried a similar pilot. In addition to cash rewards of up to $800, it tested another incentive strategy: offering employees “commitment contracts.”
Employees who chose to use commitment contracts made a $150 deposit into a savings account. If they were smoke-free after 6 months, they got the $150 back, plus up to $650 in cash rewards. If not, the $150 went to provide additional payouts to smokers who did quit.
Researchers found straight-up cash rewards led to a doubling of quit rates after 12 months. They also found substantial impacts from the commitment contracts. These contracts required lower payouts from the company, since $150 of the potential rewards came from the employees themselves.
While the examples above are from large companies, another virtue of these incentives is that they can be used with companies of any size.
These findings echo other studies on the use of commitment contracts to lower smoking in other parts of the world and on using these type of incentives to encourage other healthy behaviors like going to the gym. There are even apps and websites that let individuals create—and stick to—commitment contracts on their own.
Public policy tools are vital to Indiana’s efforts to curb our state’s high levels of tobacco use. But employers play a critical role, too, and they can take immediate action within the walls of their own organizations. Employers looking to improve their employees’ health and lower healthcare costs should consider following in the footsteps of GE and CVS by experimenting with cash rewards and commitment contracts to help their employees kick their tobacco habit.