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Life insurers say no penalties levied on some 'pot' users

by SELINA WANG, BLOOMBERG NEWS | July 5, 2015 at 2:02 a.m.

Marijuana users, who can now buy the drug without fear of arrest in some U.S. states, can also get life insurance without facing a smoker penalty -- if they shop carefully.

Among insurers with policies in place for marijuana users, 29 percent classify them as nonsmokers, according to a survey by a U.S. unit of Munich Re. One-fifth of life-insurance companies don't have official policies in place, the reinsurer found.

Marijuana has long been treated by authorities as more dangerous than tobacco. That has been changing, with more than 20 U.S. states allowing the drug for medicinal purposes. Voters in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state approved recreational use. Although the science is conclusive on cigarettes shortening life expectancies, underwriters don't have as much to go on when assessing the risks of covering marijuana users.

"We don't have clarity yet," said Bill Moore, vice president of underwriting and medical for Munich American Reassurance Co. "There just isn't good, valid data for us to say, 'Oh, we know exactly what the risk of recreational marijuana usage over a 20-year period of time is.'"

Insurers can require medical examinations, family histories and information about dangerous activities such as skydiving. Different companies have their own methods of weighing risks when setting rates for customers.

Elanders Ballard, an account executive at insurance brokerage AccuQuote, said he often refers frequent marijuana users to Transamerica, a unit of Netherlands-based Aegon NV. Other companies may treat occasional recreational marijuana use harshly, even if the insurers tolerate use of smokeless tobacco, he said.

"You can dip and chew," Ballard said. "But [if] you smoke a little marijuana more than occasionally, you're a smoker."

Prudential Financial Inc.'s decisions can range from standard rates to declination of coverage, based on the pattern of recreational marijuana use, said Mike McFarland, vice president and chief underwriter of life insurance at the Newark, N.J.-based company. Marijuana users and consumers of smokeless tobacco are ineligible for the company's preferred rate, he said.

New York Life Insurance Co. also weighs frequency of consumption.

"With mild or moderate usage, no extra charge is usually needed if the applicant has not had any adverse effects," said Thomas Gangemi, vice president and chief underwriter. "For heavy recreational use, we may assign a substandard debit."

Transamerica classifies people who smoke marijuana less than once a month, on average, in the same way as occasional cigar smokers, said Greg Tucker, a spokesman for the company. That's a better rate than what a cigarette smoker is charged.

"There are some carriers, if you smoke six marijuana joints a year, you would be treated the same as a cigarette smoker," he said. "We define 'occasional' a little more generously."

Munich Re's Moore compared marijuana to alcohol, which many people use responsibly without incurring additional insurance costs. Smoking marijuana and drinking, however, can impair judgment in ways that cigarettes do not, he said.

"If somebody is drinking two glasses of wine a day consistently and they aren't showing adverse health effects, they'd pay the same premium rate as someone not drinking alcohol," Moore said. "But if they're smoking two, three, four joints a day, that frequency of use would likely cause an additional charge to their premium."

Cigarette smoking harms almost every organ of the body and causes more than 480,000 deaths a year in the United States, a greater total than alcohol, illegal drugs, car wrecks and gun violence combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The government's Office of National Drug Control Policy says that chronic use of marijuana may increase the risk of schizophrenia in vulnerable people. It also cites research linking frequent marijuana smoking to respiratory illnesses and says long-term use can lead to dependence and addiction.

"While the scientific community has yet to achieve full consensus on this matter, the majority of epidemiological and animal data demonstrate that the reinforcing properties of marijuana in humans is low in comparison to other drugs of abuse, including alcohol and nicotine," according to Norml, a group seeking to change marijuana laws.

Moore said insurers' decisions come down to calculations about life expectancy, rather than moral judgments. The survey was administered at the Association of Home Office Underwriters Conference in April and represents the policies of 148 U.S. underwriters, according to a statement.

Information for this article was contributed by Sonali Basak of Bloomberg News.

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