Pubdate: Mon, 23 May 2016
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Page: A3
Copyright: 2016 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Mike Hager


Is eating a pot brownie each day to help with your chronic pain as 
bad for you as regularly lighting up a cigarette? Canadian life 
insurers say the two activities pose the same risk and demand the 
same higher premiums from clients.

The insurance industry's national trade association argues the 
standard policy among insurers of tacking on increased costs to 
marijuana users - regardless of whether they smoke, vape or eat the 
drug - is based on available research. The group also suggests 
pricier premiums could be due to the severity of a medical marijuana 
patient's underlying conditions.

But as medical marijuana use grows - and with legislation to legalize 
the drug just a year away - commercial producers and advocates are 
urging insurers to change policies that penalize people who use the 
drug, including the increasing number who ingest it in liquid form. 
At the same time, commercial growers are also lobbying 
health-insurance providers to cover medical marijuana prescriptions.

The producers also say such hurdles are pushing patients away from 
the federally regulated system, in which two dozen licensed growers 
mail their dried cannabis and oils to roughly 50,000 customers, 
toward competitors selling untested products in illegal dispensaries.

Jim Pan, who has been a life insurance broker in the Vancouver region 
for the past seven years, said there are two ways most people divulge 
their marijuana use when securing a plan. If they smoke cannabis 
recreationally, they must answer yes to a catchall question that asks 
if an applicant uses illicit drugs, he said. If they use it 
medically, they must list it as one of their prescriptions. (The 
insurer could refuse a claim and return a client's premiums, with 
interest, if they are found later to have lied about such usage, he said.)

Insurers rate marijuana users with the same risk factor as tobacco 
smokers, and charge slightly higher premiums for life insurance and 
roughly double for critical illness coverage, Mr. Pan said.

M.J. Milloy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist studying 
marijuana's therapeutic effects at the BC Centre for Excellence in 
HIV/AIDS, said the available medical research proves that "it is 
inaccurate and inappropriate to put cannabis on the same rung" as 
smoking cigarettes, in terms of harm. Former prime minister Stephen 
Harper was castigated by medical researchers and addiction experts 
during last year's federal election campaign when he declared pot was 
"infinitely worse" than tobacco.

"Tobacco use is going to be the prime risk factor in the death of 
something like 15,000 to 20,000 Canadians this year due to lung 
cancer," Dr. Milloy said. "There is no good evidence to suggest that 
people who smoke cannabis have a raised risk of lung cancer or other 
respiratory or cardiovascular diseases than people who do not."

Mr. Pan said that insurers have softened their views on medical 
marijuana in recent years, as members of the competitive industry 
constantly review the available science on various medical conditions 
to reduce their rates.

"They have become more lenient in terms of use of marijuana," he 
said. "Before, those who used marijuana, let's say once a week or 
even on a week-to-week basis, would be a decline - the insurance 
company would not cover them for life insurance or critical illness insurance."

Wendy Hope, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance 
Association, said the current practice of charging marijuana patients 
more might be tied to their underlying medical conditions. She said 
her industry is learning more about cannabis, but it will "take some 
time" before a sea change occurs in how it treats the drug.

Philippe Lucas, executive director of the Canadian Medical Cannabis 
Council, a trade group representing four licensed commercial growers, 
hopes that's not the case.

He noted that at a claims conference in Edmonton earlier this month, 
a crowd of 100 brokers was receptive to his presentation calling for 
lower premiums for marijuana users. Several brokers told him that 
their firms were studying the issue, but were hesitant to be "first 
out the gate" to make any changes.

"There's really no scientific basis to be charging patients the same 
rates as tobacco users, from a life insurance perspective," Mr. Lucas said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom