The Economic Fruits of Smokefree Schools

More pertinent to the bottom line is the estimated excess cost smoking employees accrue to the school system. The CDC places this number at approximately $1,300 per smoker, which, applied to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, yields about $2.1 million additional costs.

Calculating this number a different way, based on a median income of $40,000 for the typical school employee, hourly losses total $2.8 million, which is in the same ballpark.

Unfortunately, the financial situation might be worse than these estimates suggest, since they do not include ever-increasing health insurance costs associated with tobacco use.

Smoke-Free Schools Help

Campuswide smokefree schools in any school system increases faculty and staff smoking cessation rates, which will help reduce these costs.

In addition, students in schools that go smokefree are 40 percent less likely to begin to smoke, and obviously see fewer adults who smoke serving as role models.

Teachers are especially powerful role models. Studies have shown that students who see their teachers smoke are more likely to discount the health risks associated with smoking. Purely from a health standpoint for our students, completely smokefree schools make sense.

Despite the above analyses, critics of smokfree schools remain. The major faction of critics is the smokers' rights groups, bound together by the belief that an adult should be able to choose whether he or she smokes.

The biggest problem with this argument is that it ignores the secondhand smoke exposure suffered by nonsmokers -- including children -- a health treatise unto itself. Nor does this argument address the absenteeism and productivity costs outlined above.

Furthermore, smokers' rights is a ruse. Consider this example: One cannot imagine that a school employee anywhere in the country would be able to drink a glass of wine with lunch, even though one daily glass of wine is healthy and is unlikely to cause inebriation -- even if the drinker argued "wine drinkers' rights."

In fact, one could reason that a glass-of-wine-a-day drinking policy for teachers should be legalized -- and tobacco banned -- because wine is healthy and because there is no secondhand exposure to toxins by bystanders.

Of Puffs and Politics

In Winston-Salem, though, it gets a bit trickier. Our school board has political concerns to take into account as it votes for or against tobacco-free schools. That is because RJ Reynolds, headquartered in our town, has contributed mightily over the years to the prosperity and vitality of Winston-Salem.

We live in a wonderful community. Nonetheless, show these bottom line numbers to any business manager at RJ Reynolds worth her salt, and she would be in denial to argue against them, and incompetent to ignore them.

It will be interesting to see how the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board votes later this month. If it is savvy, it will vote for a measure that not only will improve the health of faculty, staff and children but also improve the financial health of the school district.

Ladies and gentlemen of the nation's school boards: There are free dollars out there, and they are as easy to grasp as low-hanging fruit.

Carpe Diem.

Dr. John Spangler is director of tobacco-intervention programs and a professor of family medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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