Smokers miss an average of two or three more days of work each year than non-smokers, according to a new analysis of 29 past studies.
Based on that finding, absenteeism due to smoking cost the UK alone 1.4 billion pounds - or $2.25 billion - last year, researchers calculated.
"Clearly the most important message for any individual's health is, 'Quit smoking,' but I think that message is pretty well out there," said Douglas Levy, a tobacco and public health researcher from the Harvard Medical School in Boston who wasn't involved in the new study.
But, he added, "I think (the study) does point to the fact that this is something that doesn't just affect the individual, it affects the economy as well."
How the analysis was done
The analysis included studies conducted between 1960 and 2011 in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the United States and Japan, with a total of over 71 000 public and private sector workers.
Researchers asked the workers about their current and former smoking habits and used surveys or medical and employee records to track how often they were absent over an average of two years.
Combining the results, Jo Leonardi-Bee of the University of Nottingham, UK and her colleagues found current smokers were 33% more likely to miss work than non-smokers. They were absent an average of 2.7 extra days per year than people who abstained.
Former smokers fell somewhere in between current and never-smokers when it came to absenteeism.
Smoking causes many losses
The researchers calculated that current smokers were still 19% more likely to miss work than ex-smokers - so encouraging smokers to quit could help reverse some of the lost-work trends.
"The results of this study suggest that smoking cessation in the workplace could potentially result in cost savings for employers from reduced absenteeism," Leonardi-Bee's team reported in the journal Addiction.
The 1.4 billion pounds lost in the UK due to smoking-related absenteeism is only one cost of smoking in the workplace, according to Leonardi-Bee and her colleagues. Others include productivity lost to smoking breaks and the cost of cigarette-related fire damage.
In the analysis, smoking was tied to workers' short-term absences as well as leaves of four weeks or more.
"There's some portion of it which is just folks getting sick more often," such as with colds and other bugs, says Levy. Other people, he said, may need more serious medical attention that keeps them away from work.
Levy's own research has shown kids living with smokers are more likely to be absent from school. Secondhand smoke is tied to a range of health ailments, from asthma to heart attacks - so employees who light up may have to miss work more often to stay at home with sick family members.
Approximately one in five adults in both the UK and the US is a current smoker.
According to the most recent data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking was responsible for $193 billion in health-related economic losses each year between 2000 and 2004 in the US, about half of which was due to lost productivity.
Levy said the most important finding from the new review is the reduction in absenteeism after workers quit smoking. That idea supports companies funding smoking-cessation classes and other workplace health programmes, he said.
"There's a growing sense that employee wellness is important," according to Levy. "As health care costs start to increase and this becomes something which is really squeezing employers, this is something they're trying to do to address that."
(Reuters Health, October 2012)
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