September 16, 2014

Opposition to smoking surcharge

Groups against smoking are not sold on a proposed smoking penalty.

Anti-smoking groups say a surcharge on health insurance is not necessarily the best way to get folks hooked on cigarettes to quit. Dona Wininsky, director of public policy and communications with the American Lung Association, says it’s not an “evidence-based approach” to get smokers to stop. “This is really breaking new ground and so we don’t have the evidence that’s necessary for us, as an organization, to embrace it.”

Under Governor Scott Walker’s budget plan, state employees would be required to sign affidavits promising that they don’t smoke, or else they’d have to pay a $50-per-month surcharge on their health plans.

Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States. Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wininsky wants to help smokers, not punish them.

At $2.52 per pack in Wisconsin, certainly higher cigarette taxes takes money from consumers’ pockets, but Wininsky wants to encourage smokers to kick their habit while not hindering their ability to get health care coverage. “Yes, it costs the user more money out of their pockets to purchase cigarettes — and that we do want to discourage,” but she says they don’t want to discourage people from getting health care coverage because of the price. “And another thing that we do know is any barriers that people have to health care and access to good programs prevent them from using it.”

Wininsky says smokers need access to smoking cessation programs that are proven to work, especially low-income people who generally smoke at higher rates than those making more money.

Department of Administration spokesperson Stephanie Marquis tells Wisconsin Radio Network the plan could affect about 10 percent of state workers, who are about a third more expensive to insure, and would save taxpayers $2.7 million over the next two years.

Nonsmokers in at least nine other states get a break on their health insurance premiums. Some employees are penalized for being overweight or having an unhealthful lifestyle in hopes of getting workers to take more responsibility for their health. Some workers can get a waiver from surcharges with enrollment in tobacco cessation programs.

Marquis points out Walker’s idea is merely a proposal. No details have yet been determined.

The Wisconsin State Journal says four anti-smoking groups — Smoke-Free Wisconsin, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — are all against the fee.

AUDIO: Jackie Johnson report 1:55