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Teaching Blue-Collar Workers to Kick Butts

New program succeeds where others have failed.

MONDAY, July 29 (HealthDay) -- Blue-collar workers have traditionally had the hardest time trying to kick the smoking habit. But researchers have found a new method that doubles the success rate for those who want to quit.

The study, published in the August issue of the journal Cancer Causes and Control, found that blue-collar workers are more willing to quit when they're taught about the risks of combining smoking with other common workplace hazards.

"We're trying to catch their attention," says the study's lead author, Glorian Sorensen, a Harvard University professor and director of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Center for Community-Based Research.

"Blue-collar workers have a harder time quitting. And more traditional workplace programs haven't been as successful with blue-collar workers," she says.

There's a pressing need for a successful cessation program because blue-collar workers smoke far more than other workers. A 1997 study found that 37 percent of male blue-collar workers and 33 percent of female workers smoked. For white-collar workers, just 21 percent of men and 20 percent of women smoked, Sorensen says. Moreover, white-collar workers are quitting at a faster rate, she says.

But the risks of smoking on the job aren't just limited to cigarettes for blue-collar workers. Those workers are often exposed to chemicals that can become deadlier when combined with smoking. For example, asbestos workers who smoke dramatically increase their chances of dying of lung cancer, the American Lung Association says.

Even without smoking, American workplaces can be dangerous. An estimated 60,000 people die of occupational diseases every year; of those, more than 17,000 die of lung cancer because of inhaling cancer-causing agents, the American Lung Association says.

Those factors increase the urgency of persuading blue-collar workers to quit, Sorensen says.

In prior studies, she found that blue-collar workers get less support in their efforts to quit than white-collar workers, even though they're often very willing to try.

"Blue-collar workers attempt to quit at the same rate as white-collar workers, but they're much less successful. Maybe there is more peer pressure in these workplaces," adds Greg DeLaurier, a consultant with the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, who works with labor unions around the country to establish smoking-cessation programs.

For the Dana-Farber study, researchers randomly selected 15 large manufacturing companies around the Boston area. Then they divided the workers into two groups. One group went through a general health program, which included information about the risks of smoking. The other group focused on specific occupational hazards within the workplace, and how smoking makes them worse.

Twice as many workers in the latter group quit smoking over the 16-month study, Sorensen found. And because they were already careful about workplace hazards, they were much more willing to support their co-workers' efforts to quit smoking.

DeLaurier has had the same experience in working with blue-collar smokers.

"What doesn't work very well is if you just offer a generic smoking program," he says. "But if you tie it into the specifics of the workplace, smoking is no longer just an abstraction. It puts it in a context the worker will listen to."

The study also supports the idea that the work environment is an ideal place to tackle health issues, Sorensen says.

"The large majority of adults spend their time in a work setting. It's a place that shapes our behavior through social norms and the support you get from your co-workers," she says. "As we think about health, whether smoking or anything else, we need to think about how those individual factors are situated in the broad fabric of a person's life."

What To Do

To learn more about occupational hazards and their long-term effects, visit the American Lung Association. For information about smoking on the job, visit this site. To read one of the first federal reports about the risks of smoking in blue-collar work sites, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Glorian Sorensen, Ph.D., professor of health and social behavior, department of health and social behavior, Harvard School of Public Health, and director, Dana-Farber Institute's Center for Community-Based Research, Boston; Greg DeLaurier, labor consultant with the University of Massachusetts, Lowell; August 2002 Cancer Causes and Control
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