Smokers’ surcharge may be having an effect

Does adding an insurance surcharge for smokers prompt some to kick the habit?

State officials say the number of Georgians in the state employee health plan paying $80 more a month in insurance premiums due to smoking has dropped by 44 percent over the past six years.

The goals of the surcharge in Georgia are to encourage people to quit smoking and to help cover their additional health costs, said Pam Keene, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community, which oversees the State Health Benefit Plan.

From January 2007 to January 2013, the number of state workers paying the $80 fee because of smoking dropped from 46,459 to 25,850.

The plan, which covers schoolteachers, other school personnel, state employees, and dependents and retirees, has more than 650,000 members. They must pay the surcharge if they or a covered dependent smokes.

Twelve states make state employees who smoke pay such a surcharge, reported the Wisconsin State Journal recently. Wisconsin is considering imposing a fee of $50 per month.

June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association in Georgia, said Monday that surcharges generally have not been proved as effective as offering benefits that help employees stop smoking.

The State Health Benefit Plan has added benefits such as phone and online counseling for smokers and covers several medications to help them quit, she noted.

The plan’s members, if they join the state’s cessation telephone coaching program, can get either prescription or over-the-counter medication to help them quit their habit. And eventually they can get the surcharge removed.

“The average smoker quits several times before quitting for good,’’ Deen said.

The state’s surcharge may have led some people to quit, she said. “We’re happy to see reductions in smoking,’’ she added.

Use of employee tobacco surcharges is rising among employers in general.  A 2012 national health benefits survey by Mercer found 19 percent of large employers vary the employee contribution amount based on tobacco use, or provide other incentives to encourage workers not to use tobacco. That’s up from 17 percent in 2011.

Roughly one in five Georgia adults smoke, which is also roughly the national average. Smoking results in the loss of $1.8 billion in health care costs every year among Georgians 18 and older.

About 10,000 Georgians 35 and older die every year from tobacco-related illnesses, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease.

The penalty for a Georgia state employee who smokes but has not been paying the surcharge is that the individual loses health coverage for a year. Keene said the state has not yet imposed this penalty. Nor do state officials have an estimate of how much in savings the tobacco surcharge has caused.

Tobacco is not the only surcharge used by states. Alabama and North Carolina make obese state workers pay a $25-per-month surcharge, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Georgia has one of the lowest state cigarette taxes in the nation, and Deen said raising it would help stop some youths from smoking.

“Most people start smoking before they’re adults,’’ she said.

Currently, 23 percent of high school students in Georgia use tobacco products.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal, to be released this week, would finance a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds with higher federal taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The proposal is opposed by the tobacco industry, convenience stores and anti-tax activists.