February 11, 2009 / 10:11 PM / 10 years ago

Bribes help workers kick the habit

BOSTON (Reuters) - Not only does it pay to stop smoking because your health improves, you’re more likely to quit if you get paid well to do it.

An office worker enjoys a cigarette in downtown Toronto, February 19, 2007. REUTERS/J.P. Moczulski

A study of 878 General Electric workers at 85 different facilities around the United States found that people were three times more likely to stay off cigarettes for at least six months if they were rewarded with up to $750.

Earlier studies had suggested that cash incentives did not work, but those tests had been smaller and the rewards had been as little as $10, said Dr. Kevin Volpp of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who led the research reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Incentive programs work if they’re well designed and adequately funded. If you do a low-budget incentive program, it may have little effect,” Volpp said in a telephone interview.

Although 70 percent of smokers in the United States say they want to quit, smoking-cessation programs do not have a high success rate. “Only about two or three percent per year actually do quit,” said Volpp.

Tobacco kills about 438,000 Americans annually.

“Our study shows that if you’re able to get people smoke-free and keep them smoke-free for six months or more, there’s a fighting chance they can stay smoke-free on their own,” he said.

But a key question is how much an insurance company or employer should be willing to pay to get someone off cigarettes. A 2002 estimate said that having a worker quit is worth $3,400 in increased productivity and reduced illness. But those savings are not always obvious on a case-by-case basis.

In addition, the study was done with highly educated white volunteers. It is not known if the findings would apply to other groups, or whether the size of the payment would affect the success rate.

All of the workers in the study received information about smoking-cessation programs. Half were paid $100 for completing one, $250 for actually quitting smoking, and $400 for staying off cigarettes for at least six months, as measured by a saliva or urine test.

Because of the promise of money, three times as many people participated in a stop-smoking program as did those who were just told about the program.

Among those who initially quit, 14.7 percent who got the cash were still off cigarettes six months later, compared to 5 percent who got no reward.

Editing by Maggie Fox and Philip Barbara

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