The Economic Fruits of Smokefree Schools

It has become almost too cliché to repeat: Smoking is hazardous to your health.

All of us know the litany of diseases associated with smoking: cancer, heart attacks, emphysema. This list barely scratches the surface, since smoking affects every organ system.

Many people also recognize the hazards of secondhand smoking, most of which mirror those of smoking.

But did you know that smoking is hazardous to the financial health of our nation's school systems?

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, in Winston-Salem, N.C., votes May 22 on whether this school system will go tobacco free, campuswide.

No smoking in the parking lots, in the football stadiums, at school events.

This system educates about 51,000 children, making it the fifth-largest school district in North Carolina and the 94th largest in the nation. There are 40 elementary schools, 15 middle schools and 11 high schools.

A City Built on Smoke

To put it mildly, this is an astounding place for a school board to consider a vote on smokefree schools, campuswide.

Tobacco money virtually built this town, which lent its name to Winston and Salem cigarettes. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company is headquartered here, and generations of local residents have worked in the tobacco-related industry or agriculture in some form.

The town even acquired the sobriquet Camel City, after the popular brand of cigarettes. To paraphrase a common bumper sticker seen around North Carolina: Tobacco money pays our bills.

Even our school bills.

Amazing or not, though, it is imperative that the financial hazards of tobacco use be factored in to considerations of smokefree schools by school board members and taxpayers here and across the nation. This is because smoking-related costs to any school system are staggering. And that applies to school systems well-beyond tobacco land.

The Financial Side of Smoking

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one smoker loses 33 hours per year to illness -- not even counting loss of productivity.

Let's take Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools as an example and see how this figure works itself out in one school system's costs.

About 21 percent of American adults smoke. Given that the local schools employ approximately 7,500 adults, this translates into about 1,575 smokers.

Do the math, and the result is 51,975 hours in lost work time due tobacco-related absenteeism in our school system. Even if you cut this number by 17 percent to account for many teachers and administrators working 10 months per year, the result is 43,139 hours in sick days.

Smoking breaks during school pile on additional lost hours. A faculty or staff member who takes a 10-minute smoking break twice a day over 40 weeks racks up 60 hours per year of time spent smoking and not doing his or her job.

Again, averaging that over the estimated 1,575 smokers employed by the school system, this yields 94,500 hours spent smoking.

Someone is covering those lost hours either in the form of substitute teachers, which is an added cost to the school since faculty and staff get paid sick days, or in the form of colleagues covering for smokers while they are on smoking breaks, which reduces overall productivity and, according to studies, can generate resentment by the nonsmoker who does not take that time off or who covers for the smoker.

Summing all tobacco-related lost time yields 137,639 hours up in smoke in Camel City.

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