Lafayette, Ind., to tax smokers to create wellness fund

Taxing tobacco users to improve worker health has reared its controversial head in bucolic Lafayette, Ind.

The city, home to Purdue University, calls itself “the place of choice for singles, families and retirees.” But maybe not so much now the choice of smokers, who were the target of a city council ordinance approving a doubling of a tax on smokers to help pay for city-sponsored wellness programs.

As reported on the website of Lafayette TV station WLFI, council members agreed on a first reading (only) of legislation to tax city workers who smoke and funnel the cash into a wellness fund open to all covered city workers.

“Next year, each employee who uses tobacco has to pay a $500 surcharge, twice as much as the $250 surcharge for 2013. Tobacco users who lie about their habit can be fired from their job. City officials estimate the surcharges will generate about $32,000 annually to the wellness fund, which will be spent on health and nutrition programs,” the TV station reported.

Levying taxes or fines on those who choose to smoke or are overweight — usually in the form of higher insurance premiums, but sometimes as “penalties” — have become accepted options for employers trying to get workers to get healthy. Surveys show the general population tends to support higher insurance premiums for smokers and those deemed to be obese. But occasionally such schemes have backfired.

Whether Lafayette will be able to navigate this tricky terrain remains to be seen. Council President Ron Campbell told the news station he was optimistic about the plan to fund wellness programs.

“Hopefully we will (achieve more than benefit). Not only from the standpoint of our premiums going down, but also an increase in the health of our city employees,” said Campbell.

There’s a chance for smokers and their allies to lobby against the measure, since the city councilors have to read the measure into the record once more next month and approve it in order for it to become law.

The story immediately ignited an online debate among readers.

One, with the handle “Indy47906,” rushed to the defense of the smokers. “People complain because it is outright discrimination to tax people twice as much as others under the same program,” Indy47906 said. “It is really just that simple and it is really just wrong. And if the smokers have the option, they should opt out of the wellness program and let the city lose money and have to increase the price for the non-smokers.”

“Jace Upfront” wasn’t buying Indy47906’s argument. “It’s about time this is getting started. You should be held accountable for your ‘choices.’ And yes people with excessive weight (barring any kind of physical reason why) should pay a bigger premium,” said Jace, dragging obesity into the fray.

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