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Avoid These 2 Mistakes with Wellness Program Incentives for Smoking Cessation

Avoid These 2 Mistakes with Wellness Program Incentives for Smoking Cessation

It seems like simple math: wellness program incentives that help people stop smoking save everyone money in the long run.

From healthcare-related illnesses to lost productivity, the costs of smoking are much higher than a financial incentive to quit. But trading one sum for the other isn’t always as straightforward as it looks on paper.

There are other factors to consider when setting up incentives for smoking cessation to ensure that your approach sets the participant—and your company—up for success.

Download “Do Stop-smoking Incentives Actually Work?”

Different types of wellness program incentives

When a smoker quits, the financial gain to an employer can be significant.

The estimated extra cost of a smoking employee versus a non-smoking one is about $6,000 per year for higher healthcare costs and lost productivity. These additional expenses make employers highly motivated to help smokers quit.

More than 2/3 of U.S. employers use wellness program incentives, which can take the form of rewards or penalties for a wide range of activities.

Where quit-smoking incentives go awry

Thinking about using incentives for tobacco cessation or interested in trying a new approach to generate better outcomes? Consider these 2 common areas where employers go awry when structuring quit-smoking incentives for results—with tips on how to address them.

  1. Thinking in terms of program completion requirements

Asking “How long does the program take to complete?” is often the first signal that an incentive program will go awry. It’s like asking how many weeks a diabetic person needs to take insulin: it simply doesn’t match the nature of the disease of tobacco addiction.

“Program completion” implies that after a certain number of weeks a participant has graduated and is “done with quitting.” This just isn’t how tobacco addiction works.

Tobacco use actually changes the brain, creating millions of nicotine receptors that remember the pleasure from smoking long after a smoker has quit. Learning how to live tobacco-free and developing the skills to prepare for and manage powerful cravings takes time and practice.

“Incentive achievement” is a more fitting description for this process, which ideally has multiple steps.

Tip: Ensure the requirements to achieve your incentive introduce tobacco users to a suite of resources that are highly correlated with quitting success. By taking this approach, tobacco users know where they can turn when they are struggling with cravings, questions, and uncertainty, even long after they achieve the incentive.

  1. Fostering resentment

Quit-smoking incentives can be a great way to encourage an already motivated person to make the decision to quit. A review of nearly two dozen studies found that incentives can boost cessation rates when they are in place, though it remains unclear whether the “carrot” (incentive) or “stick” (penalty) approach works better.

But they can have a downside, too.

Incentives can unintentionally foster resentment in those who don’t feel confident or ready to quit and feel forced to quit on someone else’s timeline.

Tip: Tie your incentive to a cessation program that gives tobacco users access to tobacco treatment experts who allow them to genuinely express where they’re at—without judgment. (To learn more, see how EX Coaches engage the disengaged with quit-smoking incentives.)

Interested in learning 2 other common mistakes employers make when structuring incentives for tobacco cessation—with tips to avoid them? Download “Do Stop-smoking Incentives Actually Work?” now.


Jessie Saul, Ph.D.

Client Success Director

Jessie brings 20+ years of experience in program evaluation and strategic planning with tobacco cessation. She applies this deep understanding to help clients improve program performance and reduce tobacco use among populations. She earned her Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University.