BOSTON (Reuters) - General Electric Co is known for exporting American products like washing machines and jet engines, and the biggest U.S. conglomerate is getting ready to ship out another American trend — the outdoor smoking ban.
The world’s largest maker of jet engines this week told employees that it plans to ban smoking on all GE property — both indoors and out — worldwide starting in March 2011.
The Fairfield, Connecticut-based company already prohibits indoor smoking at about 80 percent of its 2,000 facilities globally. The new policy aims to extend that ban to apply to all GE property, meaning an assembly-line worker could not have a cigarette while walking from the factory gate to the door.
“We’ve made a commitment to making our employees healthier and it’s a little bit of walking the talk,” said GE spokeswoman Sue Bishop. “It’s due to the overwhelming evidence of the ill-effects of smoking.”
Smoking — a leading cause of cancer — has become increasingly unpopular in the United States in recent decades, with many businesses and municipalities banning smoking indoors. Some U.S. universities, hospitals and parks have banned smoking outdoors.
Last year the U.S., which is wrestling with ways to control the rising cost of health care, more than doubled the national tax on cigarettes to $1 per pack. That pressured the U.S. sales of Altria Group Inc, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, and Reynolds American Inc, which makes Camel.
The American Cancer Society estimates that smoking costs the U.S. economy $196 billion a year in medical costs and productivity losses due to smoking-related deaths.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s inability to quit smoking made headlines in the United States after his first official physical exam last week.
While smoking has been on the decline in the United States for half a century, about half of GE’s 304,000 employees work outside its home country, where smoking rates can be higher.
Almost one in five Americans — 19.8 percent of the population — smokes, according to data from the World Health Organization.
But smoking is far more common in some emerging markets that GE regards as key to its future growth. For instance, in China, about 31.4 percent of the population — and 57.4 percent of men — smoke; in India 57 percent of men and 10.8 percent of women smoke.
Smoking is also more common in Western Europe, with 23.2 percent of Germans and 25 percent of the French smoking.
GE is not alone in banning smoking at its outdoor facilities in the United States. Drugmaker Abbott Laboratories Inc prohibits employees and visitors from lighting up at any of its campuses in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Some U.S. companies have taken anti-tobacco measures even further. In 2005, lawn care products maker Scott’s Miracle-Gro Co said it would no longer hire people in the United States who smoked and banned its employees from smoking on or off the job in the U.S. states where it can do so legally.
The company today estimates that less than 10 percent of its 8,000 employees use tobacco products, down from more than 25 percent before the policy, said Jim King, a senior vice president at the Marysville, Ohio-based company.
The Cleveland Clinic, a major Midwestern hospital, in 2007 said it would no longer hire smokers.
GE’s ban — which also applies to chewing tobacco and other so-called smokeless products — will be subject to local laws and labor agreements, and does not apply to employees’ behavior off GE property, Bishop said.
To give its salaried U.S. employees a further incentive to quit smoking, GE this year adopted a two-tier insurance program that requires smokers to pay an additional $625 per year in insurance premiums. (Reporting by Scott Malone, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)