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Robin Abcarian Perspective

Should smokers pay more for health insurance?

March 29, 2013|By Robin Abcarian
  • California legislators are considering a bill that would bar insurers from charging smokers higher health insurance premiums.
California legislators are considering a bill that would bar insurers… (EPA )

I’m one of those non-smoking California types who has grown “allergic” to smoking. Can’t stand to be around people who smoke, can’t stand the way they stink up the joint, can’t stand to look at an ashtray full of butts.

The other day at a Santa Monica restaurant, the hostess seated a group next to my table and the whiff of tobacco — which came in on their clothes — permeated the air like rancid perfume. It almost ruined the taste of my vegan lasagna. That is a crime in these parts.

Like lots of people who enjoy their vices, smokers like to invoke their constitutional right to light up. I don’t dispute that. So feel free to get lung cancer, American freedom fighter, but don’t forget that the rest of us are sucking up your second-hand smoke and helping foot your considerably heftier medical bills.

Should smokers pay higher health premiums? Congress thinks so. President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which goes into effect in 2014, gives health insurers the right to jack up premiums for people who smoke.

The Associated Press calculated that a 55-year-old smoker might pay as much as $4,250 extra a year, while a 60-year-old smoker might have to pay an additional $5,100.

That’s a massive penalty, especially because the very people who can least afford higher premiums are the ones who tend to be smokers: poor folks.

In California, according to the Institute for Health Policy Solutions, smoking rates are well below the national average (12.1% vs. 19.3% in 2010). But poor Californians smoke more than the national average. In 2008, the institute says, nearly 20% of Californians with household incomes less than $20,000 smoked, while only 7.8% of Californians with household incomes more than $150,000 were smokers.

California legislators are considering a bill that will bar insurers from charging smokers higher premiums.

“It’s more important than ever that smokers have healthcare coverage and access to smoking cessation treatment to help them stop smoking,” said Sacramento Assemblyman Richard Pan, a pediatrician who introduced the bill. “That’s a more important goal than trying to penalize them for smoking.”

So far he hasn’t heard from anyone who thinks the bill is bad public policy. “I have not had any insurers come to me and say, ‘We should have higher premiums,’” Pan said.

Charging smokers for their habit, he said, would not make them stop smoking. “What they would do is go uninsured.”

Twitter: @robinabcarian

Email: robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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