Pubdate: Sun, 17 Jan 2010
Source: New York Times Magazine (NY)
Page: MM19
Column: The Ethicist
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Note: The New York Times Magazine is a section of the Sunday edition 
of the New York Times
Author: Randy Cohen
Note: Relevant part of a longer column.


My son was dropped from our family's employee-sponsored health
insurance shortly after graduating from college in May. While filling
out the application for a new policy, he asked me how to answer a
question about his marijuana use in the past year. I said, "Honestly."
He checked a box indicating he smoked very occasionally and was denied
coverage. Now he is uninsured while countless pot-smoking liars have
coverage. My husband thinks I gave our son foolish advice. Do you
agree? M.H., MONTCLAIR, N.J.

In this situation, there is no good advice. Some problems are simply
not amenable to an honorable individualist solution, offering a choice
only between disheartening alternatives.

Honesty may not always be the best policy -- and, by the way, do these
pants make me look fat? -- but we rely on the trustworthiness of those
we do business with. Were your son to lie on that form, he'd do his
small part to erode that trust. And yet it's hard to see how he'd harm
the insurance company. Few dire health consequences result from
sporadic youthful pot-smoking or even occasional adult pot-smoking. It
is impertinent of the insurer to act on information that is medically

And so, were I filling out that form, I'd lie without remorse. (All
right, with some remorse. Accompanied by resentment. I blame my
upbringing. And my inept, albeit imaginary, therapist.) But I could
not advise my child to lie -- even an older child, even to an
insurance company. I would feel a parental duty to teach integrity and
encourage civic engagement. So I would urge him to supply an honest
answer on that form and write an urgent letter to his elected
representatives, particularly those working on health care reform. The
real solution here is to guarantee access to medical care to all
people, not just those pot-smoking liars.

UPDATE: The son appealed the decision. The company remained adamant
but said he could reapply in a year. M. H. says she believes it was
giving him a nod and a wink, hinting that next year her son should
simply lie. The parents were able to get him back on his father's
policy for $500 a month.

Send your queries to  or The Ethicist, The New
York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018,
and include a daytime phone number. Randy Cohen's podcasts of The
Ethicist are now available at, iTunes and
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake