Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Broad Tobacco-Related Insurance Premiums Are Unjustified & Injurious

I recently received this email:

“I am a 29 year old male from Upper Michigan, married with 3 kids.  My wife and I recently signed on with [company name redacted] as this was one of the only affordable health care options for our family and I like most all of their ‘principles’ or values.

“Only 1 problem; they require that you don't use any drugs, drink, smoke, chew, nothing.  I consider myself a healthy individual as I'm 6'3", 200 lbs and fit. I haven't seen a doctor in years, frankly because I haven't a need.  I don't use drugs, drink, or smoke. However, I've chewed Copenhagen snuff for about 15 years and never had a problem with it. I was the one who had 2, maybe 3 small dips each day, a can would last me a week. It was never excessive and never a problem.

“For the sake of [company] I quit chewing snuff a few months ago. Since I quit, I've noticed I'm short tempered with my wife and kids.  My performance at work has decreased, and I started gaining weight, and losing sleep. I think about it every day, and I feel no better without it. I feel like [company]'s penalty is harsh for dipping.  And they penalize the same for smoking or other hardcore drugs that I'd never do.
“I found you online, and I admire your courage to speak the truth about smoking and chewing.

“Please let me know if you can help educate my health ‘insurance’ company on the truth about chewing tobacco. Any help is appreciated.”
This narrative is not unusual; over the years, I have received numerous similar complaints.  Many smoke-free tobacco users are pioneers; my research group published a study about them in 1995, and I have also told their stories in this blog. 
Unfortunately, smoke-free tobacco users continue to suffer from policies that consider all tobacco products – even medicinal nicotine – as equally dangerous, and all tobacco/nicotine users as high-risk.  This conflation of risks improperly raises premium costs, limits employment opportunities and degrades the quality of smoke-free tobacco users’ lives.  It also provides a financial windfall for insurers.
The federal government and health organizations often promote this conflation, and Obamacare legislation codified it, defining “smoking” as “using any tobacco product on average four or more times per week in the past six months.” (emphasis added)  It may be justifiable to charge smokers higher premiums, because they are at risk for many diseases that health insurance must cover and, on average, their lives will be shortened by 8-10 years, justifying higher life insurance premiums.  But use of smoke-free tobacco products which are associated with minimal or no added health risks should not incur such punitive premium treatment.
Many tobacco consumers avoid higher premiums by lying about their lifestyle choice.  Research shows that “tobacco users may be decreasingly likely to report their tobacco use status accurately to avoid surcharges” when enrolling in Healthcare.gov exchanges.  The problem for these individuals is that insurers and employers commonly require urine tests, which readily detect nicotine as long as three to four weeks after use. However, these tests do not distinguish how nicotine entered the body – via smoking or the use of smoke-free tobacco or medicinal nicotine.
As a health professional, I do not condone deliberate misreporting of tobacco use on insurance applications.  However, I do oppose the degradation of smoke-free tobacco users’ quality of life for no legitimate reason.

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