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Willingness to Take Risks Equated With Accidents : Studies Link Smoking, Drunk Driving

December 29, 1985|GINO del GUERCIO | United Press International

BOSTON — People who smoke cigarettes are more likely to drive drunk, speed and not wear seat belts, and, as a result, some medical experts are suggesting that they should pay higher car insurance rates.

Studies show that those who smoke are 40% more likely to have an automobile accident than nonsmokers and are 3 1/2 times more likely to drive drunk.

Form of Addiction

"Smoking isn't just a social habit, it's a form of drug addiction," said Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "And people who are addicted to one drug are more likely to be addicted to another drug, such as alcohol."

His research has disclosed that almost one of three smokers is an alcoholic, as opposed to one of 70 nonsmokers. He published his research as a letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"People who are willing to risk their life by smoking are also going to be more willing to risk their life by speeding, not wearing seat belts and driving while drunk," said DiFranza, who is an expert in family and community medicine.

"Smokers don't wear seat belts as often as nonsmokers and get more traffic tickets," he said, referring to research he has not yet published. "Both of those (characteristics) would support the theory that smokers take more risks all around and often end up with more car accidents."

Tobacco manufacturers have argued that making cigarette smokers pay higher insurance rates is a form of discrimination and, therefore, should be illegal. DiFranza counters by saying that it is only illegal to discriminate against traits or behavior that cannot reasonably be changed, such as race or sex.

"It's perfectly legal to discriminate on the basis of smoking," he said, if insurance companies can prove that, as a group, smokers are more likely to get into traffic accidents. Several Midwestern states already have regulations allowing insurance companies to charge smokers more for car insurance, and the courts have upheld their legality.

Insurance companies that have adopted the practice say that, even though they pay less in premiums, nonsmokers are better risks for automobile insurers than smokers.

Other states are considering similar regulations. Several Massachusetts-based insurance companies are conducting studies of their own. However, Massachusetts' insurance commissioner says that his state is not likely to adopt such regulations in the near future.

No Change in Law Needed

An automobile insurance discount for nonsmokers does not require an amendment to state law. It requires only a change in state insurance regulations, which are usually overseen by an insurance commission.

DiFranza says that his ultimate goal is not to take money from the pockets of smokers but to stop them from smoking. "With regulations like this, maybe people will realize that smoking isn't just fun and glamour, as they show in cigarette ads," he said.

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