When you’re trying to encourage someone else to quit doing something that’s bad for them, which approach works better — the carrot, or the stick?

A little of both works the best, according to the scientists behind a recent study that shows that smokers are more likely to stop puffing if their own money is at stake. Maine’s private employers should pay close attention to this research as they work on more effective strategies for curbing employee smoking.

This new approach to motivating smokers to quit is the result of a University of Pennsylvania study in which more than 2,500 employees of CVS/Caremark were offered incentives to stop smoking. Some participants got $800 if they stayed tobacco-free for six months. Others received $650 but also had to put down a $150 deposit that they’d lose if they resumed smoking.

The people who risked losing their up-front deposit were nearly twice as likely to stay smoke-free as those who had none of their own funds on the line.

Though Maine’s adult smoking rate has plummeted in the past several decades, at 20.2 percent in 2013, it’s higher than the national average — and the highest in New England. (Rhode Island is a distant second in the region, with an adult smoking rate of 17.4 percent.)

Most smokers want to stop but struggle to kick the habit (45 percent of all Americans who smoke have tried to stop at least three times). So the nearly half of all Maine residents insured through their workplace rely on their employers and health insurers to promote and support effective stop-smoking strategies.

Many companies have tried reducing workers’ health insurance premiums the year after they quit puffing. This approach isn’t as compelling, because it makes successful quitters wait too long for their reward.

“These large employers are spending an average of $800 to $900 per employee per year, but in ways that are often blind to normal human psychology,” Scott Halpern, one of the Penn researchers, told The New York Times on Wednesday.

Now that there’s solid evidence about what tactics work best, both insurers and employers have better information to guide them, and they should make use of it — for the sake not only of their own bottom line, but also of improved health of the people who live and work in Maine.


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