Erie County wants to help its workers kick butts

Erie County is offering a carrot but waving a bigger stick to convince smokers in the county's workforce to give up the habit.
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

Erie County is offering a carrot but waving a bigger stick to convince smokers in the county's workforce to give up the habit.

The county's current policy already discourages smoking, but the county hopes to begin an even tougher policy at the beginning of next year.

Starting Jan. 1, the county also plans to offer up to $450 to each county employee trying to quit smoking to cover nicotine replacement therapies and smoking cessation products, said Margaret Rudolph, director of human resources for Erie County.

The $450 is a lifetime offer, so if the smoker spends it and still finds himself puffing away, he'll have to cover additional costs himself, Rudolph said.

The $450 is being offered to 50 people, Rudolph said, for a total maximum cost of $22,500.

County employees will be allowed to sign up in January. If the 50 slots don't fill up, spouses of county employees can sign up in February. If slots still remain open, children older than 18 can sign up in March.

The idea is that getting employees to quit now can help Erie County save on the cost of treatment for lung cancer, hypertension, heart trouble and other smoking-related illnesses, Rudolph said.

The new program came out of a county government committee looking for ways to rein in health insurance costs.

Since January, the county health department has been providing health screenings for county employees.

The cost containment panel also came up with the idea for the county's get-tougher approach to smokers in its workforce.

Smoking has been banned inside county buildings and in county vehicles since 1993, County Administrator Mike Bixler said.

After voters last year passed a state question banning smoking in state restaurants and other public gathering places, the county commissioners extended the ban, forbidding outside smoking within 50 feet of the entrance to a county building.

Bixler said he hopes to have a policy in place by Jan. 1 banning smoking on all county land, including parking lots.

A key question is whether other elected officials in Erie County will cooperate in enforcing a stringent policy.

"For consistency reasons, we need the support of elected officials and some boards and commissions such as the election board," Bixler said.

Bixler said he has heard reports some county offices have tolerated smoking in county-owned vehicles, but declined to offer specific examples.

"I will leave that as a general statement," Bixler said.

Letters have been sent to county elected officials, who were asked to respond by Nov. 15 on whether they will support a stricter policy.

Erie County Auditor Tom Paul said he's on board.

"Personally, since I don't smoke, I think it's a great idea," Paul said.

County employees in theory already are banned from lighting up inside their personal cars in the county's downtown parking garage, although the rule probably isn't strictly enforced, Bixler and Paul said.

"You're in your own car," Paul said. "If you want to decrease the resale value of your car by that much, go right ahead."