R Street’s work on tobacco harm reduction matters a great deal to us. On these matters, we’ve taken a position different from many other libertarian groups. It might be best summarized like this:

We accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that smoking tobacco is addictive; causes disease; and results in significant premature mortality. We support efforts to discourage smoking, protect the public from environmental tobacco smoke and discourage children from using all tobacco or nicotine products. We differ from other tobacco-control advocates in that we recognize the growing body of scientific evidence that suggests many smoke-free products –such as chewing tobacco, snus and e-cigarettes – provide a vastly safer way to use nicotine, although not ‘safe’ by any commonly recognized standard. Since quitting nicotine use altogether may be nearly impossible for some people and since nicotine itself has some beneficial effects for some, we think public-health efforts should encourage ‘harm reduction’ options for those who cannot quit altogether.

This is easy to preach, but a bit tricky for us to practice as an employer. Even if we wanted to surcharge health premiums for smokers and reduce them for nonsmokers, District of Columbia law doesn’t permit that. As smoking is legal, we’re not going to stop employees from taking smoke breaks from work or lecture anybody about the dangers of smoking. (We think all of our employees know them. anyway)

With that said, for the same reasons we reimburse gym memberships, pay for bike sharing and cover the full cost of employee health insurance, we think we can do better by having a healthier workforce. This includes maintaining tobacco ham-reduction program at work.

Our program is simple: we offer employees who want to quit smoking modest financial incentives to do so. They are available to any staff member who quits combustible tobacco products, whether or not they actually quit nicotine altogether. The payments are in the hundreds of dollars, up to maximum of $900. While certainly a nice perk, these sums obviously aren’t life-changing.

Nonetheless, it seems to be having an effect. Several employees have tried the program and received incentive payments. Also, one employee who was a “social” smoker has switched to e-cigarettes only but declined the incentive payments. On the whole, we’ve reduced smoking among our employees, at minimal cost.

Obviously, our success is hardly scientific proof that such an approach works or is worth doing on a large scale. If there’s any net financial benefit at all to the program, it probably accrues mostly to our health insurance plans. We don’t ask employees if they smoke, didn’t create a control group and simply take employees’ word for it that they have successfully quit or switched. We also don’t inquire and aren’t even entitled to know if any of them have supplemented their quit/switch attempts with drugs like Chantix or gotten professional help from a therapist. Even if we did all of these things, our smallish crew of wonky libertarians isn’t representative of the population as a whole.

But we’re practicing what we preach and preliminary results indicate that our harm-reduction effort just might be worthwhile.

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