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"Stopping cancer before it starts should be a major goal of the health care industry", says Walgreens CEO Greg Wasson.

CEOs NewsBrief - Greg Wasson

Being in the business of dispensing products and services to help people live well, stay well and get well means getting behind efforts to prevent disease, not just treat it. That’s why the chief executive officer of the nation’s largest drugstore chain, Walgreens, thinks it’s so important for the company’s 247,000 employees to embrace healthy lifestyle changes that help prevent life-threatening diseases like cancer.

“It’s important for us as a health care provider to make sure that we’re involved in early detection and prevention any way we can,” says Greg Wasson, Walgreens’ CEO since February 2009. During his early days with the company, Wasson interned with Walgreens while attending pharmacy school at Purdue University. Helping customers at stores in the Houston area taught him the benefits of prevention early on. In the ensuing years, the company has built on that tradition and now provides health and wellness information to the public through its Web site, health newsletters, and call centers.

Wasson didn’t have to think twice about getting involved with the American Cancer Society CEOs Against Cancer® program. He wants his organization to lead by example when it comes to helping people live well, stay well and get well and help reduce their risk of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. “We have a lot of benefits designed to encourage healthy living, and all of them have been pretty well received by our employees,” he says. For example, Walgreens employees nationwide enjoy discounts on premiums for adopting healthy lifestyle changes, as well as special benefits to undergo cancer screenings and other early detection testing. In addition, the company has a cafeteria that serves only healthy food on its corporate campus outside of Chicago, Illinois, and brings in a guest chef regularly to teach employees how to prepare healthy meals at home. There are also walking paths that connect buildings so workers can get outside for a little exercise on sunny days, and a fitness center has been installed at its headquarters campus.

“People want to see a corporation going in that direction, toward prevention,” Wasson says. “We encourage our employees to go work out at any time of day.” While some employees were reluctant to use the fitness center for workouts in the middle of the work day, Wasson assured them that workouts were perfectly acceptable and even encouraged. He’s even used the fitness center himself to set an example to his team. “Like anything else, you have to set the tone at the top,” he says. “I wanted to encourage our people to feel comfortable changing to a healthy lifestyle. And I’m always in the new cafeteria. It’s all healthy food!”

In addition to getting active and eating healthy, employees are encouraged to avoid tobacco to stay well and avoid cancer and other serious diseases. It certainly helps that all Walgreens stores and offices are smoke-free, and for employees who do need help quitting tobacco, they have access to counseling through the American Cancer Society Quit For Life® program, which is managed and operated by Alere Wellbeing. Wasson says employee groups have set goals for weight loss and keep track of the total pounds lost by employees so people can get to and stay at a healthy weight throughout life.

A few months after Wasson took over as CEO in 2009, Walgreens received the first American Cancer Society Corporate Impact Award for Excellence in recognition of efforts by the company and employees to help create a world with less cancer and more birthdays. In addition to everything Walgreens does to help employees and the communities they serve live well, stay well and get well, employees are known for their overwhelming support of the Society’s mission through employee engagement opportunities such as the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life® National Corporate Team Program. Walgreens’ Relay ranks have swelled to nearly 1,000 teams nationwide that raise over $1 million annually. Since joining the Relay For Life National Corporate Team Program in 2006, Walgreens and its employees have raised nearly $6 million through their Relay involvement alone.

As a CEO, Wasson feels he is in a unique position to help change the course of cancer. That’s why he thinks being involved in the CEOs Against Cancer initiative is so important.

“As CEOs, we can influence large numbers of people quickly, to make an impact quickly,” he says. “And the benefits to your employees – it builds engagement and pride. Most people today, especially if you’re in health care, understand what the real drivers of health are. This is about preventing life-threatening disease down the road. We want to be a part of that.”