A smart bill to fight smoking


California requires health insurance companies to cover in-vitro fertilization, bone-density screening for osteoporosis and chiropractic sessions. Curiously, it doesn’t do the same for treatments to help smokers quit.

Kicking the habit is, of course, a tremendous boon to the health of individual smokers, but it’s also good public policy and potentially beneficial to insurance companies. Effective smoking-cessation treatments — which include certain medications, nicotine gums and patches, and group counseling — seldom cost more than a few hundred dollars and double the success rate over trying to quit without help. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1 in 4 smokers who use medications to quit are able to go smoke-free for more than six months.

Less smoking means less chance of catastrophic illnesses that are much more expensive to cover; lower rates of disabilities that taxpayers end up footing the bill for; less secondhand smoke; and even less litter. Cigarette butts are the most common trash item on the state’s beaches.

A bill by state Sen. Leland Yee (D- San Francisco) starts with the right intention, mandating coverage for treatments that have been found to be effective by the American Lung Assn. Seven other states require at least some level of smoking-cessation coverage. Our only concern is that Yee’s bill would go beyond what any other state mandates by prohibiting insurers from requiring copayments or deductibles for smoking remedies. In addition, coverage would have to include over-the-counter drugs. Only two states now include those drugs.

Some people might object that smokers choose their unhealthful habit. But since insurance covers the cancer and emphysema that result from cigarette use, it makes sense to help smokers when they decide to quit.

Preventive care is the best way to safeguard the nation’s health and bring down medical costs. But patients are responsible for copayments and deductibles for most health conditions, and over-the-counter medications are seldom covered. It is reasonable to subject smoking-cessation coverage to the same standards as other treatments.

Yee’s bill, SB 220, is scheduled to go before the Assembly Health Committee on Tuesday. With amendments to rein in the provisions on copayments and over-the-counter medications, the bill should pass. California should continue to be one of the nation’s leaders in combating the devastating consequences of smoking to both personal and public health.