General Electric to go tobacco-free in 2011

A year ago, General Electric Co. promised financial incentives to U.S. employees who kicked the smoking habit.GE do smoke free

Now, the company is going a step further, launching a new policy that would make all the company’s work sites tobacco-free by this time in 2011.

There are some other differences between then and now.

For one thing, the Connecticut-based company, one of the world’s largest, is addressing only at-work behavior.

Employees won’t be asked to sign a tobacco-free pledge that extends beyond the workplace, said Stephan Koller, a spokesman for GE Transportation, based in Lawrence Park Township.

But they will be asked to refrain from using tobacco of all kinds on company property.

After the success of a 2008 experiment in which GE offered a $750 cash incentive for employees who quit smoking, the company began offering a $625 discount on health-insurance premiums for nonsmoking employees earlier this year.

The smoking ban, set to take effect companywide on March 1, 2011 — sooner at some locations — is motivated by two things, Koller said.

“It’s helping our employees and their dependents — helping them make healthier choices that will improve their quality of life,” he said.

At the same time, he said, “It addresses health-care costs that have spiraled out of control.”

The company has yet to work out all the details on turning dozens of GE sites into smoke-free zones. Smoking is already prohibited inside company buildings, but many employees now step outside to smoke in designated areas during their breaks.

“We are at the front end of the process,” Koller said. “We are going to work hand-in-hand with our employees to see what is the best way to implement this.”

GE’s move is far from unprecedented. Two other large Erie employers, Hamot Medical Center and Saint Vincent Health Center, prohibit the use of tobacco both inside and outside.

Koller vowed that GE Transportation won’t impose a new rule on its 4,000 Erie employees without offering some assistance.

“The overall direction is in place,” Koller said. “We have to see what this means to Transportation. How do we get employees to wean themselves off tobacco products? There is going to be an education effort.”

And while there might not be any cash payments to ease the pain of quitting, Koller said incentives will take the form of lower health-care premiums for employees who kick the habit.

Employees aren’t the only ones with money at stake.

A report by the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that works to improve the health-care system, estimates the annual health-care tab for cigarette smoking at $75 billion.

The foundation, which highlighted research done on smoking cessation at GE, said the average employer saves $3,400 a year for each employee who gives up cigarettes.

Local 506 of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, GE Transportation’s main union, is expected to meet today to discuss its stance on the company’s plans.

A union spokesman said that in broad terms, however, “Keeping our people safe and keeping them healthy is a priority of unions.”

JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by e-mail.

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