Smokers need not apply

In 2005, Cleveland Clinic launched a number of wellness initiatives to improve the health of our employees and raise awareness of primary causes of premature death in America - smoking, sedentary behavior, and poor food choices.

In 2005, Cleveland Clinic launched a number of wellness initiatives to improve the health of our employees and raise awareness of primary causes of premature death in America – smoking, sedentary behavior, and poor food choices. We wanted to “walk the talk” of wellness by modeling healthy behaviors as an organization before we spoke publicly about these issues.

We banned smoking on our campuses, decided not to hire smokers, and eliminated trans fats, fryers, sugared drinks, and candy. We put great emphasis on encouraging exercise across our campus.

To coincide with those efforts, we offered free smoking-cessation kits, educational materials, and memberships at Curves and Weight Watchers to encourage our community to quit smoking and improve its health. The institution also supported state efforts to ban smoking in public places, which led to a reduction in Ohio's smoking rate by 10% over five years. Our employees lost over 250,000 pounds in two and a half years.

From a PR aspect, the decision to not hire smokers had its ups and downs. People like choices and want to make their own decisions. As we educated people about the rise in chronic diseases, the dangers of smoking, and offered them the help they needed, responses from employees and the community were very positive. Cleveland Clinic has also seen a decrease in the growth rate of our healthcare costs.

Forty percent of premature deaths in this country are preventable. Our CEO, a heart surgeon for more than 30 years, believes he's likely helped more people by focusing on wellness than the 22,000 surgeries he performed to fix their hearts – often due to the devastation of smoking, obesity, and poor food choices over a person's lifetime.

A great outcome of this has been opening up the national dialogue about the risks of smoking, obesity, and poor food choices. With the current levels of chronic diseases and premature death due in part to these factors, many parents today won't live long enough to meet their grandchildren. It's a good time to keep talking - loud and clear.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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