By Thomas J. Foels

Smokers in New York State will not be subject to higher premiums as reported in an Associated Press article (“Smokers may be priced out of health coverage”) that appeared in The Buffalo News on Jan. 25.

According to the story, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will allow health insurers to charge smokers buying individual policies up to 50 percent higher premiums. The story also says the law will allow insurers to charge older adults up to three times more than younger individuals.

Neither of these potential outcomes is permissible in New York. That may seem like good news to smokers, but let’s talk about the real costs of smoking. According to the American Cancer Society, smoking causes the deaths of about 443,000 people – or about one in five deaths – each year in the United States.

Smoking can cause lung cancer and is also linked to a higher risk of other cancers, heart disease and stroke. Additionally, millions of Americans suffer from smoking-related lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These diseases, grouped together as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), make it harder to breathe. COPD causes chronic illness and disability, and gets worse over time – sometimes becoming fatal.

These facts are even more alarming when you realize the significant impact chronic conditions have on health care costs, which are so often the result of personal choice. It’s estimated up to 75 percent of medical costs in the United States are due to chronic conditions, the vast majority of which are due to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, overeating, alcohol abuse and physical inactivity.

Through its premium-rating methodology, the ACA recognized the impact smoking has on health care costs and the fact hundreds of billions of dollars are spent treating chronic conditions, most of which could be prevented.

Although New York State does not permit charging smokers more for health insurance premiums, this is yet another moment to re-examine our lifestyle choices and those of our loved ones. We must continue to address the illness burden we bring upon ourselves. By encouraging greater personal responsibility, we can improve the population’s health and lower future health costs.

Independent Health provides employers and individuals with programs, services and resources to make better, more-informed choices. We engage consumers through lifestyle products such as Empower, which rewards individuals through lower co-pays and deductibles for making healthier choices.

By creating a culture of health, we will further improve the health and vitality of the Western New York community and our nation, decrease rates of preventable illness and make health care more affordable.

Thomas J. Foels, M.D., is executive vice president and chief medical officer at Independent Health.