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Major firms' insurance unions to team up to tackle smoking among members

In this May 29, 2011 file photo, people consult with doctors on giving up smoking at a shopping center in Tottori. (Mainichi)

Corporate health insurance unions of 18 major companies are setting up a consortium with over 580,000 total members to offer remote outpatient treatment to help people quit smoking.

The move comes as the unions, faced with financial difficulties, need to reduce high smoking-related medical costs. The group aims to cut the smoking rate by 5 percent by 2020, when the Olympics and Paralympics will be held in Japan, reducing the number of smokers among those insured by company health coverage schemes by some 30,000.

In July this year, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for the first time approved of completely remote outpatient treatment for smokers, which does not require face-to-face examinations by doctors, as a health care program as long as it is provided by insurers such as corporate health insurance unions. The latest development marks the first trial of this remote treatment to help people give up smoking.

Many corporate insurance unions are facing financial problems due to Japan's aging society, and need to hold down the number of smokers among their membership as smoking increases overall medical costs. The unions joining the consortium include those for Nissan Motor Co., Japan Airlines Co., Recruit Holdings Co., Nomura Securities Co., Kao Corp. and Konica Minolta Inc., with a total membership of roughly 583,000.

According to online health care support firm Linkage, which will undertake the remote treatment, a doctor will examine a patient online via smartphone or computer four times over a span of eight weeks or less, and send anti-smoking pills to the patient at their home or workplace. Public health nurses and other health experts will support the patient online or on the phone, and make sure via email that the patient is refraining from smoking up until the 36th week of the program. The program test run will start in the fall, and the system will be put into full-scale operation in fiscal 2018.

As companies with production and sales bases in rural areas lack access to medical institutions that offer outpatient treatment for smokers, some find it difficult to continue treatment to give up smoking. The program is also hoped to better the ratio of smokers who successfully quit.

Yoshio Nakaie, general manager of Uchida Yoko Health Insurance Association and organizer of the consortium, says the group aims to use information technology to realize health care projects that would be impossible for a single union to implement. He added, "Reducing the smoking rate by 5 percent will have a huge impact on society."

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