Proposed smoking fee draws surprise foes: anti-smoking advocates

2013-02-28T07:30:00Z Proposed smoking fee draws surprise foes: anti-smoking advocatesDAVID WAHLBERG | Wisconsin State Journal | dwahlberg@madison.com | 608-252-6125 madison.com

Gov. Scott Walker's proposed $50-a-month fee for state employees who smoke faces some surprising opponents: anti-smoking advocates.

Smoke Free Wisconsin, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids don't support such surcharges on health insurance.

The fees make coverage less affordable for smokers and aren't proven to get them to quit, the groups say.

"A surcharge puts up a barrier for many people — particularly low-income people, where we see the higher rates of smoking," said Dona Wininsky, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association in Wisconsin.

The groups are fighting similar provisions in the federal health reform law that allow insurance companies to charge smokers up to 50 percent more than non-smokers.

"There is little scientific evidence or research showing that financial incentives or disincentives tied to health insurance premiums will compel an individual to quit," the American Cancer Society said in a statement last week.

Cigarette taxes, smoke-free laws and tobacco prevention and cessation programs work better, the groups say.

Walker proposed the $50-a-month surcharge as part of his 2013-15 budget to offset long-term employee health care costs.

Smokers cost a third more to insure than non-smokers, said Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration. The fee, affecting about 10 percent of the 69,000 state employees, would save $2.7 million over two years, she said.

At least nine states have similar provisions, Marquis said.

Among the employees likely affected: the state's new top health official, Department of Health Services secretary Kitty Rhoades.

Rhoades, at least until recently, has been a smoker. The department oversees the state's tobacco prevention and control program. She and two spokeswomen didn't respond to questions about her stance on the surcharge.

Formerly deputy secretary, Rhoades was named to the top spot last week when Dennis Smith said he was starting a job this week at a Washington, D.C., law firm.

Laura Smith — spokeswoman for Smoke Free Wisconsin, part of Health First Wisconsin — said the state should increase funding for tobacco prevention and control instead of implementing the surcharge.

Walker's budget calls for $5.32 million a year for such efforts. As recently as 2008-09, the state spent nearly three times more.

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