VINELAND — There is no missing the Vineland Health Department’s anti-smoking crusader when she pulls up to a business in her custom-painted RV.
The recreational vehicle features photos of people reciting common excuses about why they can’t stop smoking cigarettes: job anxiety or life stress or the difficulty of quitting.
Emma Lopez, of Vineland, has led the city’s tobacco-education campaign since 1998, going from business to business to help workers kick the habit.
The RV gives her a place to talk to employees on their lunch breaks about quitting options.
Lopez has been especially busy lately as health-insurance premiums for smokers have skyrocketed and employers have placed increasing restrictions on smoking in the workplace.
“We’re cheerleaders. We’re here to help,” she said. “Health care costs are astronomical. Programs that work to prevent people from getting ill are a good investment for society.”
Her RV is just one of the resources South Jersey employers and workers are using to curb smoking as part of wellness campaigns or simply to cut insurance payouts.
While private insurers in New Jersey are not permitted to ask about smoking habits or impose higher premiums on smokers, self-insured companies can, said Wardell Sanders, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of Health Plans, a nonprofit group that represents insurers.
“A lot of employers self-fund their benefits. That’s not subject to state law,” he said.
Smokers often pay significantly higher health-insurance premiums than their nonsmoking co-workers. Under the Affordable Care Act, smokers must pay as much as 50 percent higher premiums for insurance.
“We’ve seen, increasingly, employers play a stronger role in getting those insurance costs down through wellness programs. It’s their money. They have an enormous stake in the health of their employees,” Sanders said. “Sometimes it’s the carrot approach, and sometimes it’s the stick.”
The stick of higher costs alone sometimes is enough to motivate workers to seek help quitting smoking.
“I have had some people come to me and say they’re being charged more in health premiums and they need to quit,” said Stephanie Bordonaro, of Egg Harbor Township, coordinator for Shore Medical Center’s Tobacco Prevention and Treatment Program.
She works with individuals and businesses across South Jersey to tailor a smoking-cessation program that will work best for them.
“Employers have contacted us. A lot of places are going smoke-free to help keep their insurance rates down,” she said.
Shore Medical Center educates people about approved medical options to quit smoking as well as coping mechanisms if they want to quit cold turkey, she said.
A wealth of nicotine-replacement products and treatment options is available, ranging from hypnosis and acupuncture to counseling and nicotine patches, gums, inhalers and lozenges.
Doctors also can prescribe drugs such as the antidepressant Wellbutrin or Chantix, which helps stave off cravings for cigarettes.
Shore offers a four-session smoking-cessation package for $100, she said.
“It’s a plan that’s tailor-made for each person,” Bordonaro said. “We know it’s not easy, but if a person wants to quit, then they can do it.”
New Jersey offers a tobacco quit line (866-657-8677) through which people can get free counseling to quit smoking. Because of the known adverse effects of smoking on babies and pregnancies, new mothers and mothers-to-be are especially encouraged to quit smoking through a group called Moms Quit Connection, said Cathy Butler, assistant director of tobacco control initiatives.
“There are resources out there to help your employees. It’s free,” she said. “It’s a good support system for people who do want to make a change in their smoking consumption.”
Butler’s group provides counseling, including in-person treatment and support, to women who want to quit smoking in South Jersey. The group also educates hospitals, doctors and social services about the role they can play in helping people quit.
Doctors can be far more influential than others in persuading people to quit, she said.
“Interventions by doctors are two and a half times more successful,” she said. “It also takes a person eight to 10 quit attempts. It’s very difficult to quit. It is an addiction.”
Vineland’s Lopez, a former social smoker, said cigarettes can maintain their grip on smokers through any of three dependencies: chemical, habitual or psychological.
Often, the habitual dependency is the hardest to break. People turn to cigarettes as a matter of routine during the day, she said.
“It’s addictive, and it’s everywhere. You can get cigarettes in more places than you can get bread and milk,” she said.
Contact Michael Miller: