If I smoked in the past, does that affect my life insurance rates?

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If I smoked in the past, does that affect my life insurance rates?

A lot of people work hard to quit smoking. It’s a hard habit to break, and it can feel liberating once you stop. But unfortunately, just because you quit doesn’t mean you’re in the clear when it comes to your life insurance.

Getting term life insurance coverage when you have a history of smoking cigarettes, using smoking cessation products or smoking marijuana, is possible but you’ll need to understand what exactly life insurance carriers are looking at and how to leverage your application timing to secure the best available rates.

How your smoking history affects your rates

When you apply for a life insurance policy, whether or not your smoke, you need to go through the underwriting process. An underwriter will look at various aspects of your life – your health, your hobbies, your driving record – and classify you from Preferred Plus to Substandard to determine how risky you are. Less risky means a better classification which means lower rates.

If you’ve never smoked, you can move straight along to applying for life insurance (unless you’re interested for academic reasons. In that case, you’re probably the type of person who listens to a lot of podcasts). If you smoke or have in the past, you’ll need to tell your potential life insurance company and understand how that decides your health class and final quote.

If you currently smoke, you’ll be put into a special Smoker classification (Preferred Smoker or a Standard Smoker), which will generally double your premium rate.

But say you used to smoke but don’t anymore. What does that mean for you?

How long you’ve smoked doesn’t directly affect your rates, but the amount you smoked may affect your rates. Celebratory cigars once or twice a year may be disregarded when you go through the underwriting process. Another thing that comes into play is the time it’s been since you’ve quit smoking. The longer you wait, the better your chances are for a more favorable classification.

Non-Smoker rates are available 12 months after the applicant quit smoking. If you want to get better than a Standard rating, you’ll have to wait long. Depending on the carrier, it can take 2-3 years before they’re willing to classify you as Preferred, and 3-5 years before you’ll be eligible for Preferred Best (based on other health data, of course).

Cigarettes vs other tobacco products

When people think smoking, they typically think cigarettes. But what about other tobacco products? Do cigars, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes, or even smoking cessation products (think: nicotine patches and gum) matter?

The short answer is...usually.

Most carriers assign smoking classification and rates for any tobacco use. However, there are a few carriers, like MetLife, who will assign non-Smoker rates if you used other types of tobacco products.

(Don’t worry, we’ll get to some carrier suggestions in a minute.)

E-cigarettes are in the same boat. At the moment, almost all carriers treat them just like a cigarette, so you’ll get smoker rates. However, in recent years there’s been more and more research into e-cigs by the federal government, so if data comes out showing they’re not as dangerous as traditional cigarettes, we may see life insurers follow suit.

Finally, smoking cessation products may get you Smoker rates depending on the carrier. Insurers will test for nicotine during the physical exam blood test, and the amount of nicotine in the bloodstream from smoking cessation products will usually show up. We talk about that more in-depth here, and mention the caveats when it comes to insurers’ attitude toward them:

Some insurers are more lenient than others; Prudential, for instance, will give special consideration to smoking cessation products provided there isn’t any other cigarette use involved. MetLife, on the other hand, includes cigarette smoking and nicotine substitutes (e-cigs, nicotine patch, and other smoking cessation products) under the same guidelines and classifies users accordingly.

Marijuana use

Of course, smoking doesn’t just mean tobacco. Marijuana is in something of a legal gray area in America, and it’s in a similar "up in the air" status when it comes to life insurance coverage. And since you’ll be drug tested during the life insurance medical exam, there’s a good chance the insurer is going to find out.

But just like with tobacco smoking, what exactly this means for your rates depends on the insurer. Frequency plays a role in your rates (and this applies to marijuana usage outside of smoking). If you smoke less than two times per year, you can usually end up with a non-Smoker rating. By comparison, earlier this century you might have been flat out declined by admitting to using marijuana.

Medicinal use versus recreational use can also play a role – but maybe not in the way you think. Medicinal use can actually hurt you because the insurer will be concerned about the underlying health conditions that have led you to medicinal use.

As with your tobacco use, disclose your marijuana use to the insurer so you can get the best rates possible without risking losing your coverage due to fraud. And don’t worry about anyone else finding out about your drug use: insurers are held to the same HIPAA confidentiality standards that everyone else is.

Which life insurers should former smokers look to?

As you can probably tell, while there are some basic guidelines around smoking and life insurance (cigarettes = bad), there’s a lot of wiggle room depending on the carrier. So which is the best one for you if you’ve smoked in the past?

In our insurer reviews, we rate carriers based on how good they are for applicants with certain issues, like high blood pressure or a family history of cancer. To that end, some carriers are more lenient with former tobacco users than other. John Hancock, Lincoln Financial Group, and Prudential are all great places for former smokers to start if they’re looking to get covered. If you’re a current smoker, MetLife and BannerLife are your best bets to get the best rates.

The most important thing is to shop around and work with an independent broker or agent you trust to guide you through the process. The way you’re classified, how long after smoking it’ll take before you can get a better classification, and the rates you’ll ultimately be assigned can vary, and if you’re looking for the best policy for you, why limit yourself to just one insurer? Working with an independent broker or agent who can shop your policy around, compare rates from different, insurers, and getting you the protection you need.