Tobacco and life insurance explained

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When you apply for most types of life insurance, you’ll be asked whether you’re a smoker and tested during a life insurance medical exam. If your insurer determines you to be a smoker during this process, you’ll likely have to pay much higher life insurance premiums than non-smokers.

Insurance companies decide your life insurance rates based on individual characteristics such as age, health and other risk factors. Tobacco kills more than 7 million tobacco users every year and kills another 1.2 million people from secondhand smoke, according to the World Health Organization. As one of the highest-risk behaviors in terms of health, it makes sense that insurers would increase life insurance premiums for tobacco users.

Types of tobacco that life insurance companies care about

To get life insurance, nicotine tests are common. But life insurance companies don’t just test for nicotine. Cotinine is an alkaloid found in the body after nicotine is metabolized, so it’s an indicator of nicotine use. So if you’re wondering about a cotinine test, life insurance providers will probably look for it.

Life insurance companies care about all types of tobacco use, including:

Cigarettes

Life insurance underwriting classifies applicants as being either a tobacco risk or non-tobacco risk. Smokers who use cigarettes regularly are considered high risk to insure, so you’ll definitely be classified as a tobacco risk if you apply for life insurance as a cigarette smoker.

Cigars

If you only smoke cigars irregularly, some life insurance providers might cut you a break. But you can only smoke a few cigars a year. And many life insurers won’t make a distinction between occasional cigar use and regular cigarette use.

E-cigarettes/Vaping

Life insurance providers generally don’t separate vaping from regular cigarette smoking. If you use e-cigarette or vaping products, expect that the provider will designate you a smoker, just like if you used traditional tobacco.

Smoking cessation products

Products that help you quit smoking like nicotine gum and nicotine patches still leave traces of cotinine in your body. So if you use these products, you’ll still probably be classified as a tobacco risk, even though there’s no tobacco in the products.

Types of tobacco use that life insurance companies test for

When you apply for different types of life insurance, smoker tests are the industry standard. Although tobacco is the main concern of life insurance, tobacco tests usually aren’t the best way to tell if someone is a smoker. Instead, providers can test for cotinine.

Here’s what life insurance companies test for:

Tobacco-based nicotine products

All tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco are considered high-risk factors for life insurance providers. If you use any of these products, even occasionally, then you’ll probably be placed in the tobacco-user risk class, which means your premiums will be much higher than they would if you didn’t smoke.

Nicotine products without tobacco

Life insurance providers usually test for cotinine. That means even if you use nicotine products without tobacco, you’ll still probably be placed in the tobacco user risk class. In the eyes of life insurance providers, E-cigarettes, nicotine gum and nicotine patches are still considered products that put you at risk for tobacco use.

Marijuana

Marijuana is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. As a result, more Americans are beginning to use it. If you’re a frequent marijuana smoker, you’ll most likely be classified as a smoker by your insurance provider and have to pay higher rates. Insurance companies typically require a blood and urine sample that screens for THC. If you only use edibles rather than smoke, you may be able to qualify for non-smoking rates, but it could be tricky to prove that to your insurance company. And your rates could still increase for using marijuana recreationally, even if you’re in excellent health.

How long tobacco stays in your system

Testing for tobacco relies on a sample of your blood, urine, saliva or hair. Depending on the sample used for the test, nicotine can usually be detected for a few weeks after use. However, nicotine use can occasionally be detected up to a year later with a hair test. If you’re wondering how long nicotine stays in your system, you should keep in mind that it could last for up to 12 months.

To be considered a non-smoker for life insurance purposes, providers usually want you to be smoke-free for a year. Even if you quit smoking months ago and don’t think the insurance company will be able to detect anything in your system, you should never lie about your smoking habits or when you quit.

If you lie about your tobacco use and the provider finds out, then claims on your life insurance policy will be denied, which could put your loved ones in financial jeopardy. Lying to a life insurance provider about your tobacco use could also be seen as fraud, which could come with legal ramifications. For this reason, the best policy is always to be completely honest on all health questions in the life insurance application process.

The cost of tobacco use on life insurance

According to the CDC, tobacco use is the leading cause of “preventable disease, disability and death.” Furthermore, smoking-related illness is estimated to cost society more than $300 billion every year. Life insurance providers are well aware of this, and they price their policies accordingly.

If you’re a smoker applying for life insurance, you can expect to pay two to three times more for a health insurance policy than a non-smoker pays. However, some “smoker-friendly” insurance companies might be willing to work with you on premium rates.

How former tobacco users can get the same rates as non-users

When you sign up for a new life insurance policy, the provider will probably ask if you’ve used nicotine in the last 12 months. To be considered a non-smoker for life insurance, you’ll need to be nicotine-free for at least a year.

If you already have a life insurance policy and you’ve quit smoking, then you can ask your provider for rate reconsideration. At this point, your provider will likely require you to take another test. You also have the option to search for a different provider and start fresh with a new non-smoker life insurance policy.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best life insurance company?

Life insurance is highly individualized, based on the health and age of the policyholder, as well as their financial situation and desired coverage. So the best life insurance company for one person might not be the best for another. To find the best life insurance company for you, it may be helpful to get quotes from multiple providers and see which one can offer you the best coverage options.

Does secondhand smoke affect nicotine tests for life insurance?

According to the CDC, secondhand smoke can cause health issues. Whether or not smoking affects your insurance rates depends on the amount of exposure you’ve had to it. Secondhand smoke exposure can be detected using a cotinine test, so it’s possible that secondhand smoke could result in a provider classifying you as a tobacco user.

How long do I need to quit to pass a nicotine test for life insurance?

Depending on the test and frequency of use, it’s possible to pass a nicotine test after you’re smoke-free for a few weeks. However, many life insurance providers will only classify you as a non-user after you’ve quit for a year. So if you want a lower life insurance premium, the best bet is to quit for a full 12 months before applying for a policy.

How does the payout process work for life insurance beneficiaries?

The life insurance company of the deceased person should be able to tell you the exact steps you need to follow to obtain the death benefit. But if you are the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, you’ll typically need to:

  • Obtain a death certificate certifying that the policyholder has passed away
  • Locate the policyholder’s life insurance documents
  • Notify the insurance company of the policyholder’s death
  • Initiate the claims process.
  • After the insurance company verifies the policyholder’s death and verifies you as a beneficiary, you should receive the death benefit as long as no policy violations are identified during the claims process.
Written by
Lizzie Nealon
Insurance Writer
Lizzie Nealon is an insurance writer for Bankrate. Her favorite part of the job is making home, auto and life insurance digestible for readers so they can prepare for the future.
Edited by
Insurance Editor