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War on smokers escalates 

After Oct. 1, White County Medical Center in Searcy will no longer hire new employees who smoke, becoming one of the first hospitals in Arkansas to adopt such a policy. Smokers already on the payroll will not be affected, and can continue to smoke when they're away from the hospital. Smoking at hospitals was banned by the legislature several years ago.

Ray Montgomery, president and CEO of the Medical Center, said the new policy was part of a larger health initiative at Searcy's only hospital. Like every other employer, the hospital has seen its employee health costs increase sharply. "We're trying to create as healthy an environment as we can," Montgomery said. "We're encouraging, but not requiring, our staff to exercise and use the stairs. We're making improvements in the cafeteria so we can serve healthier food. Nonsmoking employees pay less for health insurance than smokers. We offer stop-smoking classes." The hospital's legal counsel advised that it could also refuse to hire smokers.

Healthier hospital employees should mean lower coasts for hospital patients, Montgomery said. He said that health-care premiums for the hospital's employees cost about $7 million a year. The employees pay 20 percent of that. The hospital pays the rest. The hospital gets its money from patients.

Montgomery said the hospital's legal counsel had advised that the hospital could stop hiring smokers. The new policy has produced "some negativity on the part of smokers," Montgomery said. "But most nonsmokers have been encouraging. They think we should be a role model for healthy living."

Arkansas is one of the smokingest states in the Union, Montgomery said. The percentage of the population that smokes is 19.4. Only seven states smoke more. The state that smokes the most is Kentucky, a big tobacco-producing state, with 22 percent smokers. At White County Medical Center, 21.5 percent of employees and spouses smoke. "We're even higher than the state, and close to Kentucky," Montgomery said. That should change as smokers leave the payroll because of attrition and non-smokers replace them.

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