Insurance Companies Treat Smokers Unfairly

With Philadelphia area smokers already up in arms over a proposed smoking ban in the city’s restaurants and bars, neighboring Montgomery County has lobbed another bomb into their world. The Montgomery County proposal, however, has nothing to do with environmental factors or respecting the rights of nonsmokers. Rather, it aims only to save money by arbitrarily controlling the private lives of county employees.

The proposal would bar smokers from being hired for county jobs. Montgomery County Commissioners Chairman Jim Matthews has defended the proposal by pointing out that the county could realize considerable savings on employee health insurance premiums by hiring only nonsmokers.

Now, I don’t particularly like to work around smokers. I don’t like the nasty smell that clings to their hair, skin, and clothes. I don’t like the way that the smell lingers behind them in elevators and other closed spaces long after they’ve left. I don’t like running the gauntlet when I enter or exit a building where the doorway is surrounded by furiously puffing smokers. And I resent the way that their habit gives them an excuse for more frequent breaks during the workday. But refusing to hire smokers because of a personal practice that has no bearing on their work experience, education, and talents is just plain wrong.

I do not deny the fact that smoking is directly linked to an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease. But other lifestyle choices can be just as hazardous.

In the long run, is smoking a cigarette any worse for you than eating a double cheeseburger with a side of fries? Is the damage to our lungs from smoking any worse than the damage to our livers brought about by heavy drinking? Is smoking any riskier than engaging in promiscuous unprotected sex in this age of HIV/AIDS?

Yet Montgomery County officials have expressed no interest in patrolling the lunch bags or bedrooms of prospective employees, only their ashtrays. If there is not already a law on the books forbidding this kind of arbitrary employment discrimination, then there should be.

Perhaps the insurance companies deserve most of the blame for this issue. After all, they are the ones who are charging Montgomery County more money to insure smokers while ignoring other risk factors.

It is certainly sensible for insurance companies to charge a higher premium to insure those who engage in risky behaviors. But aren’t smokers being singled out while others are given a free pass?

Perhaps it’s time for insurance companies to rethink their risk evaluation policies and start weighing other lifestyle factors. Health insurance applications already ask about tobacco use. Perhaps they should be revised to also screen applicants based on number of fat grams eaten per week, number of alcoholic beverages consumed, and the ratio of sex acts to condoms used. Perhaps applicants should be asked if they ever go out in the sun without properly applying sunscreen. Perhaps applicants should be rated on whether they take any prescription medicines that might have harmful side effects, such as Vioxx, Celebrex, or Bextra.

And perhaps Montgomery County officials could put their time to better use by creating fair and ethical policies that would protect the rights of all their citizens, not just the nonsmokers.

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