SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Chatham County employee James Putney is on his way to becoming smoke-free after 40 years of lighting up.
After attending three of four smoking cessation classes, he is down from 20 to two cigarettes a day, Putney said.
The county's plan to start charging employees who smoke an extra $20 per paycheck for health insurance also helped his fight.
"It's a great incentive to get people to quit," Putney said, "especially with the way the economy is."
Putney's success so far is something county officials are hoping to emulate with their push to get employees to kick the habit.
Of the county's 139 admitted smokers, 115 signed up for the four free sessions. The remaining 24 will pay the fee.
"We've got some positive feedback," said Human Resources Director Michael Kaigler. "This is the push they needed to seriously consider stop smoking."
Commissioners approved the smoking initiatives in January as part of a wellness program after the county's health insurance budget increased from $10.4 million in 2003 to $18.4 million last year.
A change was needed to curb that increasing cost and improve employee health, said Commissioner Harris Odell, who has taken a lead role in instituting the wellness program. The smoking charge will allow the county to recover some of the increased costs smokers put on the county, Odell said.
"Some will be angry," Odell said. "I'd rather have them angry, but live longer."
Odell knows what it's like to quit. He ended his 20-year habit four years ago - about the same time he started focusing on cutting the county's health costs.
"I had to do what I preached," he said. "What I preached was smoking is bad for you."
Chatham County is one of the latest groups to adopt the relatively new practice of charging smokers more on their premiums and it's too soon to say how effective the practice is, said Kylene Hartsfield, mission delivery manager for the Savannah branch of the American Cancer Society.
The American Cancer Society provided free training and materials to county employees so they could conduct the cessation classes. Typically, about 60 percent of the class graduates quit smoking by the end of the program, Hartsfield said. The sessions involve smokers talking about why they smoke, describing their difficulties quitting and encouraging them to set quit dates.
After making unsuccessful attempts in the past, Putney said the group environment the classes provide has made it easier to quit.
"You get to listen to other folks' stories and encourage each other," he said. "I think that helps a lot."